Skip to main content

DARPA seeks building materials that can respond to change and heal after damage

What if we could grow houses and other structures to suit specific purposes, using local resources? And what if those buildings were capable of self-healing after damage? How would we do that? Those are some of the questions the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is hoping to answer in its request for proposals for the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program.

DARPA is the U.S. Department of Defense’s answer to Google X Labs and Tony Stark’s workshop, or more likely an inspiration for each. The agency is serious about all of its projects, each of which starts with a big problem or challenge that needs an answer, a solution, or a new approach. DARPA’s ELM program calls on bleeding edge technology and, as usual for those who accept the assignments, if the technology isn’t there or not yet advanced enough, the agency calls in experts to create what’s needed.

Related Videos

The ELM project addresses two problems common to construction: transporting materials to the building or construction site and maintaining the structures and repairing damage from specific events or from the wear and tear of usage and time. The goal is to combine the structural properties of conventional building materials with characteristics of living systems. It’s all about engineered biology.

“The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM program manager Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

ELM wants to merge the features of inert biological materials such as wood with the structural potential of 3D-printed tissues and organs built on biological scaffolding that sustains the living cells and allows them to grow to suit specific purposes. The result DARPA is seeking is to add to the mix is hybrid materials that aren’t alive themselves, but support and provide structure for the living cells. That’s stage one.

The longer game for the ELM program is to be able to engineer structural features and properties into the genomes  of living, biological systems. When that wide threshold is crossed, the end game will be a new perspective on commercial real estate’s concept of “build-to-suit” — in this case it will be “grow-to-suit.”

Examples DARPA suggests are roofs that control airflow in a structure by breathing; chimneys that heal after smoke damage; and driveways, roads, or runways that literally eat oil spills.

With sufficient development, the extension of the Engineered Living Materials program would be the ability to ship materials, perhaps in drums or crates, that could be placed at destination sites and quickly grow into the desired shapes and sizes using locally available resources to sustain growth and maintain life.

If you’re sufficiently intrigued by the Engineered Living Materials program to want to be part of it, more information is available in a Broad Agency Announcement. DARPA is also hosting a Proposers Day on August 26 in Arlington, Virginia, to “further clarify the program vision and answer questions from potential proposers.” Advanced registration is required.

Editors' Recommendations

Why teaching robots to play hide-and-seek could be the key to next-gen A.I.
AI2-Thor multi-agent

Artificial general intelligence, the idea of an intelligent A.I. agent that’s able to understand and learn any intellectual task that humans can do, has long been a component of science fiction. As A.I. gets smarter and smarter -- especially with breakthroughs in machine learning tools that are able to rewrite their code to learn from new experiences -- it’s increasingly widely a part of real artificial intelligence conversations as well.

But how do we measure AGI when it does arrive? Over the years, researchers have laid out a number of possibilities. The most famous remains the Turing Test, in which a human judge interacts, sight unseen, with both humans and a machine, and must try and guess which is which. Two others, Ben Goertzel’s Robot College Student Test and Nils J. Nilsson’s Employment Test, seek to practically test an A.I.’s abilities by seeing whether it could earn a college degree or carry out workplace jobs. Another, which I should personally love to discount, posits that intelligence may be measured by the successful ability to assemble Ikea-style flatpack furniture without problems.

Read more
Tech for Change: CES 2021 reveals new devices and tech to fix the planet
tech for change save the planet ces 2021 chipolo ocean edition

The U.S. government in recent years has wrestled with questions like “should we join the Paris Agreement on climate change?” and “should battling climate change be a top priority?” -- questions that aren’t hard to answer when you stop to think about them. Of course we should. But keeping the planet healthy a little while longer isn’t merely a government chore -- it’s a goal furthered incrementally, by each and every one of us. And hundreds of small changes to the products we use, including the technology tools being unveiled at CES 2021, can help us to act locally, even as we think globally.

Last year, we spoke with HP about the Elite Dragonfly, one of the most sustainable laptops ever assembled. The chassis is made from 90% recycled magnesium and the keyboard from 50% recycled plastics from DVDs. Even the trackpad uses some recycled materials. It’s all part of what Ellen Jackowski, chief sustainability and social impact officer at HP, calls the “circular economy,” which is aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

Read more
How robotic exoskeletons can help paraplegic patients heal from injuries
Gordon Cheng, Professor for Cognitive Systems, wants to dig deeper in understanding how the brain works.

Gordon Cheng, Professor for Cognitive Systems, wants to dig deeper in understanding how the brain works. Astrid Eckert / TUM

When a team of neuroscientists fitted paraplegic patients with exoskeletons, they hoped the patients could use the robotic assistance to walk. They found something even more remarkable: Using the exoskeleton helped their healing, with patients regaining some control over their legs.

Read more