When things like bridges or stadium roofs are built, they’re designed to withstand not just the stress that they will experience on a frequent basis, but also the maximum stress loads that they’ll only be subjected to once in a while – these could take the form of things like snowfalls or wind storms. This means that much of the heavy, costly materials that the structures are made of will only occasionally prove necessary. Researchers from the University of Stuttgart, however, have come up with an alternative. They’ve designed a lightweight structure that actively adapts to increased loads via built-in hydraulics.

Known as the SmartShell, the open-air structure covers over 100 square meters (119.6 sq yds) of the university’s Vaihingen campus. Its curving wooden shell is only four centimeters (1.6 in) thick, and has supports at each of its four corners. While one of those supports is static, the other three incorporate hydraulic drives, made by project partner Bosch Rexroth.

The shell also contains sensors in various locations, that are linked to a control system. When these sensors detect a change in the structural load being placed on a particular part of the shell – such as might be caused by a shift in the wind – the hydraulics react independently within milliseconds to compensate for that load, keeping material stresses and deformations to a minimum.

Computer models were used to determine what movements would be necessary in order to counter specific load values on different parts of the shell.

The scientists believe that the technology could find use in a wide range of structures, where it would minimize weight, materials costs, and structural fatigue.

SmartShell was officially unveiled to the public this Monday.

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