Dec. 14, 1999 Writer: Aaron Hoover
Sources: Joseph Duffy, (352) 392-0814, firstname.lastname@example.org
Carl Crane, (352) 392-0814, email@example.com
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Think of it as the Jetsons meet the Boy Scouts.
Two University of Florida professors have designed the structure for a tent that has no easy-to-forget poles, no instructions and no need for set up. Owners would simply remove the tent from a bag, untie it...and the tent "self-deploys" in seconds.
"It will be especially convenient during the rain or cold weather," said Joseph Duffy, a UF mechanical engineering professor who has applied for a patent on the tent structure and other so-called "self-deployable tensegrity structures" with colleague Carl Crane, also a UF mechanical engineering professor.
The first tensegrity structures were built in 1949 by artist Kenneth Snelson. Later, Snelson's mentor, famed mathematician and philosopher R. Buckminister Fuller, used his concepts to construct geodesic domes. A contraction of "tension" and "integrity," "tensegrity" refers to rigid structures that rely on a continuous network of tension. The Georgia Dome in Atlanta, home to the Atlanta Falcons, is among several large tensegrity stadiums or other structures around the country.
Duffy, director of the UF Center for Intelligent Machines and Robotics, was toying with model tensegrity structures last year when he realized that by replacing some of the pieces with elastic bands, he could make them collapse onto themselves when compressed, then rebound to full size when released.
He and Crane built several shoebox-sized models of the tent and other shapes. Once the patent is granted, they say, their first product on the market likely will be a sun tent for the beach, probably to be marketed by late next year. "That's a product we can get out at low cost very quickly, because it doesn't have to be fully covered, waterproof or meet the other requirements of a camping tent," Crane said.
Other products, possibly including children's toys, will follow, but the researchers aren't focusing entirely on the consumer market. Their research recently caught the attention of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, which has provided $50,000 to explore making larger tents for equipment and as temporary airplane hangers.
Duffy said teams of a half-dozen trained soldiers currently require the better part of a day to set up some of the Air Force's largest tents. "I think they'd like to reduce the number of people and the time required, and these tensegrity structures offer that potential," he said.
The research also has drawn attention for its potential in a very different area: satellite antennas. Satellites need to be as compact and light as possible when lofted into space, but antennas are by nature bulky and heavy. Tensegrity structures, however, can be used to self-deploy antennas from a stowed position, Duffy said.
He demonstrated the concept using a tiny six-sided model made of wooden dowels and elastic bands. Fully deployed, the model looks like the structure for two diametrically opposed satellite dishes, perhaps useful as receiving and sending antennas, he said. Compressed in his hand, it reduces to a fraction of its deployed size.
A joint proposal with the Harris Corp., a leading antenna manufacturer, outlining the idea won a prestigious Director's Innovative Initiation Award -- and $450,000 for a one-year period -- from the National Reconnaissance Office, a government agency that builds and operates the nations' reconnaissance satellites. Also contributing to the research is the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which is providing $120,000 to Duffy and Crane to develop self-deployable tensegrity theory.
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