How to develop more ecofriendly parachutes for disaster relief | Science News for Students

How to develop more ecofriendly parachutes for disaster relief

Make them out of paper, and give them origami folds
May 17, 2019 — 11:48 am EST
a photo of Natalie Yam holding a small-scale model of her rectangular origami paper parachuet

Natalie Yam displays a small-scale model of her new parachute model made from folded paper.

A.S. Perkins

PHOENIX, Ariz. — The centuries-old Japanese art of paper-folding could help make modern disaster-relief efforts a little more ecofriendly. Known as origami, the folded paper parachutes could deliver light packages of supplies to remote regions, suggests its 18-year-old inventor from Singapore.

Many disaster-relief programs deliver tons of supplies, such as food, water or heavy equipment. These tend to be moved by road on big trucks. But some supplies may weigh just a few kilograms (pounds) or less. One such parcel, for instance, might contain a few doses of some lifesaving medicine, explains Natalie Yam. She’s a 12th grader at the Anglo-Chinese School in Singapore. Increasingly, she notes, drones deliver such small packages.

Yam holding a circular paper parachute
This circular design for an origami parachute didn't perform as well as a rectangular design, which dropped to the ground more slowly.
A.S. Perkins

But the parachute that ferries these parcels to the ground from helicopters or planes often are made of nylon. After a single use, such parachutes almost always are discarded. And because nylon is a polymer made from crude oil, it doesn’t decompose quickly (if ever). So, Natalie looked for a greener alternative.

Nylon is strong. But a parachute used just once for light packages doesn’t have to be that strong. Paper might be good enough, the teen thought. Plus, a chute made of paper can be folded into a tiny bundle, just as a fabric parachute can. Moreover, she notes, origami provides many different ways to fold the unopened paper chute.

Natalie came up with several folded designs, then tested them. Her first models were small, so she could test them indoors. Two were round. Two more were rectangular. One of the rectangular ones opened most smoothly, she found. It also was the slowest to fall and the most stable as it dropped through the air. Such features can be important when the goal is delivering some parcel to the ground softly and on target, she says.

She made a larger model of her best design and tested it outdoors. Instead of carrying a parcel, this chute carried an instrument that could actually measure the parachute’s speed and stability. This larger version of the parachute measured about 184 centimeters (6 feet) by 82 centimeters (almost 3 feet). During her tests, the chute dropped about 1.2 meters per second. That sounds fast, but isn’t too fast if the parcel it carries is well padded, the teen notes.

Natalie showcased her designs here, this week, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The competition was created by Society for Science & the Public in 1950. The 2019 event brought together more than 1,800 finalists from 80 countries. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students.)

Natalie’s single-use paper chutes should decompose easily. That means they shouldn’t be bad for the environment. They also should be less costly than parachutes made out of more conventional materials. A nylon parachute the size of her design would cost about $31, she says. One made from silk, another common parachute fabric, would cost almost $16. But an origami chute made from paper will likely cost less than $1, Natalie estimates.

Yam holding demonstrating how her parachute might deploy from an aircraft
Natalie Yam uses a small-scale model to illustrate how her parachute might deploy from an aircraft, bringing a care package to people below.
C. Ayers Photography/SSP

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

crude oil     Petroleum in the form as it comes out of the ground.

drone     A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

environment     The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).

fabric     Any flexible material that is woven, knitted or can be fused into a sheet by heat.

green     (in chemistry and environmental science) An adjective to describe products and processes that will pose little or no harm to living things or the environment.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)     Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

nylon     A silky material that is made from long, manufactured molecules called polymers. These are long chains of atoms linked together.

origami     The traditional Japanese art of paper folding. It starts with a flat sheet of paper. Through folding — and no cutting — the paper can be carefully folded into decorative 3-D structures, such as a bird in flight.

polymer     A substance made from long chains of repeating groups of atoms. Manufactured polymers include nylon, polyvinyl chloride (better known as PVC) and many types of plastics. Natural polymers include rubber, silk and cellulose (found in plants and used to make paper, for example).

silk     A fine, strong, soft fiber spun by a range of animals, such as silkworms and many other caterpillars, weaver ants, caddis flies and spiders.

Singapore     An island nation located just off the tip of Malaysia in southeast Asia. Formerly an English colony, it became an independent nation in 1965. Its roughly 55 islands (the largest is Singapore) comprise some 687 square kilometers (265 square miles) of land, and are home to more than 5.3 million people.