Inflatable Topography Module

Made by Jen Liu, Kaleb Crawford, George Wang and Ana Mernik

Our project is a bottom-up approach in creating a tending system for the plants in our Mars biome. We are taking a hands-off approach in which we are providing optimal conditions for the plants to grow by adapting the landscape via inflatable topography. Soft modular chambers can be inflated to different heights based on plants' needs, such as accommodating hydroponics, encouraging decomposition, and allowing for adequate sunlight positioning.

Created: February 1st, 2016


Speculative Proposal / Conceptual Design: 

The members for this project are: Kaleb Crawford, George Wang, Ana Mernik and Jen Liu

Our vision for a tool for tending is a series of inflatable topography modules that create the floor of our biome. These interlocking modules are chambers that can deflate/inflate at different rates to create the most ideal situation for plant growth using fans and a valve system. The arrangements of modules can potentially accommodate water distribution, decomposition and allow for adequate sunlight positioning of plants in the biome.

In thinking of the garden, we decided that our goal was to encourage growth of the plants, whatever form it may take, in order to create a healthy biome. At first we were thinking of a “top-down” approach such as creating a robot arm that could tend to the needs of the plants. However, we decided to then consider the opposite, a “bottom-up” approach, and thinking of how we could modify the surface in this way. Also rather than thinking of a tool that lives in the biome, we also wanted to consider how we can think of the habitat as a whole - as sort of a living organism that can change depending on the conditions presented. In using inflatables and principles of soft robotics for our design, we are also less likely to damage the plants. By creating a modular floor, the biome can adapt to whatever conditions may occur during the 18 month period on Mars. 

Mars Studio: Inflatable Topography Module Visualization
Kaleb Crawford -
Inflatable Unit Prototype
George Wang -


For our prototype we wanted to experiment with inflating different shapes and various methods of inflation. We used a wide variety of materials such as paper, plastic and fabric for this process. We first created a quick paper prototype that explored how the modules would sit together at various heights to create the changes in topography. A piece of cotton fabric sits on top of these chambers to create the surface that these plants would grow on.

Then we built a working prototype that demonstrates the mechanism of a single inflatable cell. The prototype consists of inflatable bag, air pump, solenoid valve and a constraint structure. You can control the speed of inflation by adjusting the air pump speed or the valve. Also, we observed that by changing the shape of constraint structure or the position of the weight on the platform you can change the behavior of the cell significantly. This provides us the potential of a flexible and versatile structure solution. 

Taking into consideration what we learned from this previous prototype, we decided to create an inflatable module that has a wide, square shape with built in structures. Using a vinyl fabric, we attached elastic bands to act as supports so that the module would be able to retain its shape even when deflated. By forming the module into a square shape, this would allow the modules to be easily interlocked with other pieces, rather than a cylindrical or pillow shaped module we were working with in our previous models. 

Paper prototype with four chambers

Vinyl fabric prototype of single square shaped inflatable module

Working prototype of a single cell



Ant Farm, Environmints, 1970

We were inspired by different inflatable architectures and how they create these contained environments. Along with creating walls and ceiling, the landscape of the ground can also be changed and modified. For example, bouncy castles are inflatable environments where the floor is structured to provide adequate support for a human to jump around. In thinking of how we imagined our biome to flourish on its own with minimal tending, we were inspired to think about how individual inflated chambers could be altered to provide ideal growing conditions and reproduce processes such as decomposition in a closed environment. During the prototyping phase, we also looked at other inflatable objects in our everyday lives. One example that we used was water wings which is typically used for swimming assistance. Inspired by the ability of water wings to stay on an arm, we used its design as a basis for creating an inflatable artery, a tube that can constrict flow based on the inflation of the tube.  



Describe how you arrived out the outcome. What iterations, refinements, design decisions and changes were made? Who did what?

The initial idea had to do with an inflatable biome from which a robotic arm with many tools for tending performs all the functions of the human hand. We then redefined our mission objectives and the scope of the project to reflect a bottom-up, hands-off approach: inflatable topography. Some analogies for this system we explored included veins and arteries, and root systems.