Origami and Kirigami Support Military and Space Innovation

Issues Details: 
Vol 13 Issue 1, Mar - Apr 2019
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Old Japanese technique of paper folding can potentially transform the military industrial complex
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Thursday, March 28, 2019

The old Japanese technique of paper folding is finding relevance in the developments of future military platforms, drones, machinery and other war materials. It can potentially transform the military industrial complex which will be led by the Fourth Industrial Technologies such as AI, Big Data and Machine Learning

2019 is a ground breaking year for the smart phone industry. Several companies are planning to launch in the market new flexible screen technology devices; for instance, ‘Samsung has opted for a book-style fold, with a larger screen protected on the inside of the device’. The smart phone and tablet would become one, and the new product would be a small, phone-sized device that opens seamlessly making it a larger screen. The rigid and inflexible printed circuit boards in these devices are being bent and curved by using polymer and nano-wire which enable a pliable circuitry as also electronic skin. Furthermore, it is now possible to bend batteries of the smart devices.

Similarly, this year China landed a robotic spacecraft Chang’e-4 on the far side of the moon, a first in space exploration. The 1.3-tonne Lander which contains a Rover made a soft landing. China now plans to launch Chang’e-5 probe later during 2019 to collect samples from the moon and bring them back to the earth. Further in 2020, it will launch a probe to orbit Mars, land and rove on it.

Origami and Kirigami

The above technological innovations and revolution in hand-held or wearable smart devices, and future lunar rovers are all inspired by the traditional Japanese art of paper folding called Origami. It is possible to make three-dimensional figures of birds, animals, insects, fish, dinosaurs and even mythical characters. Origami requires ordinary paper but designing a creature or an object takes a lot of time. The physiognomy (structure) of each object is studied in fine details and precise folds and creases make them look like real objects. 

Similarly, the geometric diversity of living creatures is a major source of inspiration for scientists and engineers who study not only their organic composition, but also observe and record the movements in diminutive details. Technology developers build mock-ups and replicas based on these observations; and the up-scaled models result in machineries that operate in similar ways as living organisms.

There is a symbiotic connection between origami and physiognomy in the development of objects. Technology developers can make objects that not only look similar to living creatures but are equally precise, compact and foldable. It is the latter that has resulted in ‘swallowable origami robot made of meat and origami exoskeletons that allow tiny bots to be more versatile’. According to KyuJin Cho, the director of the Soft Robotics Research Center at Seoul National University “folding, packaging of everyday things are everywhere, why not for robots?” Also, experts of Origami are upbeat about its use, and a former NASA physicist has stated that by using mathematical tools it is possible to ‘design artistic origami to create new folding structures that specifically solve technological problems…We can draw on ideas, structures and mechanisms that already exist in the world of origami,”

Similarly, Kirigami, the Japanese art of paper cutting, rather than folding, is used to ‘create artificial snakeskin that enables a soft robot to crawl forward’. According to an expert, “These all-terrain soft robots could one day travel across difficult environments for exploration, inspection, monitoring and search and rescue missions or perform complex, laparoscopic medical procedures.” Kirigami strays from traditional Origami rules by allowing cutting in addition to creases, but provides a manufacturing advantage that is sometimes more suited to engineering applications.


The above narrative is the harbinger of the future of devices which will find reference in the military. Origami enthusiasts are already putting their ‘folding’ expertise to make models of fighter jets, battle tanks, missiles and other ground vehicles. This art form is now being labeled as ‘Warigami’ and there is strong evidence in the drone industry which is inspired by Origami and Kirigami. It has also found reference in products and large structures that are carried or stored by squeezing them into tiny spaces thus saving on space.


Shape-shifting is another facet of the evolving technologies. It has its genesis in popular mystical and mythical stories and folklores. For instance, in Ancient Indian mythology Nāga (snakes) could assume human form and shape-shifting Rakshasa (demons) assuming animal forms to deceive humans. It is possible to change the physical form or shape of the object.  A combination of Origami and digital weaving can help sculpt complex forms which will be compact to transport and easy to deploy through inflatable, pop-up or robotic mechanisms. Apparently, these shape-shifting materials can be useful for solar panels and follow the sun throughout the day.

Military Shelters and Tents

Origami inspired shelters and tents are ‘movable, modular and deployable’ equipment and have potential use in the military.  A US university laboratory is experimenting with kinetic structures for civil engineering applications based on the “principles of origami [which] allows rigid wall structures to fold, so not only are they more energy-efficient than canvas tents, but they can also be easily transported. In fact, the structure that we built is the first rigid-wall shelter that is air lift-able”. Their goal is to “improve the quality of life of soldiers while addressing the need for better energy efficiency in heating and cooling.” These can also be part of the relief equipment that is put to use during disasters such as earthquakes, floods and other natural calamities.

Military Tactical Drones

The Origami inspired drones are perhaps most useful for tactical operations as also deliver materials and medicine in the battlefield. They are prone to damage due to bumps and scrapes. Scientists at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Lab have equipped drones with lightweight, impact-absorbent cushions. The Rotary Origami Protective System (Rotorigami) absorbs shock during a collision and it continues to fly. Miura-ori fold techniques are applied to lightweight sheet of plastic which helps reduce the force of an impact as also prevent uncontrolled spinning after impact including keeping the drone upright. This aspect is inspired by the bees and other flying insects that adopt impact-avoidance techniques and possess impact resilience based on collision sense-and-avoid systems .

Folding Antennas for Satellites

Another use of Origami is for building antennas for satellites. Big communication satellites use antennas that can be as large as ten meters in diameter or even more. Interestingly, this technology is led by Harris Corporation and Northrop Grumman, major US military and space conglomerates. The UK Ministry of Defence has commissioned Oxford Space Systems,  a UK based start-up company, to design antennas for a constellation of British spacecraft which will be deployed for gathering intelligence for operational and tactical applications. The company would be adopting ‘Origami engineering’ and the carbon-fibre antennas would be in stow position during launch stage and spread when reaching to their position the orbit in Space. The company has explained that the carbon fibre ribs are packed into a small space and when deployed they unfold into the original shape with a stiff backing structure.


With origami, it’s possible to  fold up antennas through the process of squeezing. The mechanical systems for folding and making them into a desired pattern can be controlled by a single motor. Also, according to a study, ‘reconfigurable origami-based antennas capable of mechanically altering their physical geometry can adjust their operational characteristics in real-time (resonance frequency, bandwidth, radiation pattern, etc)’

Origami-based structure for Radio Frequency Filters

It is possible to make tunable filters for antenna systems which would adapt to ‘ambient conditions in real-time’ and ‘next generation of electromagnetic cloaking systems that could be reconfigured on the fly to reflect or absorb different frequencies.’ Miura-Ori form of Origami is used in this technique and according to a member of the project, “a device based on Miura-Ori could both deploy and be re-tuned to a broad range of frequencies as compared to traditional frequency selective surfaces, which typically use electronic components to adjust the frequency rather than a physical change…Such devices could be good candidates to be used as reflect arrays for the next generation of CubeSats or other space communications devices.” Further, “ Miura-Ori pattern exhibits remarkable mechanical properties, despite being assembled from sheets barely thicker than a tenth of a millimeter” and these properties “ could make lightweight yet strong structures that could be easily transported.”

Arms, Claws and Demining

Conventional robots have rigid bodies and move inelegantly or in other ways; however, Origami-inspired bots, with light weight and compact origami joints, can be deployed in suspected minefield for demining. Their soft artificial muscles can move the arms /claws to ‘pluck the mine’ out from the ground.

Military Technology