Lightweight Webs Could Help Scientists Explore Rainforest Canopies

Yvonne Weng’s student proposal for an airborne system supporting rainforest medical research has won praise from architects and scientists alike.

The rainforest is one of the last places on earth we still have yet to fully “discover.” Biologists working in the Amazonian jungle, for example, catalogue newly discovered species of plant and insect life every month. Nearly 70% of current cancer drugs include natural ingredients derived from plant life, many of which were discovered in the rainforest.


But carrying out such research is a challenge. Even as deforestation destroys thousands of square miles of biodiversity, governments often grant few licenses to scientists. And even when researchers are given leave to work, getting up into the high forest canopy without damaging its fragile ecosystem (or even the humans involved) is difficult.

For her thesis at London’s Architectural Association, Yi Yvonne Weng proposed a non-invasive structural system for carrying out canopy research called The 6th Layer: Explorative Canopy Trail. The project won her the prestigious Foster + Partners Prize, given to one AA student every year for a particularly stand-out graduation project. It’s not hard to see why: It’s a carefully considered proposal that applies nascent architectural technology in a context where it may actually be needed. “Programmatically, the project is centred on scientific exploration and harvesting medicinal plants, which provides an alternative use of the forest without destroying it,” explains the designer.

Weng’s project imagines wide nets of super-strong tensile fabric, which would spread out the weight of humans and their belongings over a wide area, minimizing damage to the trees. Comparable to feather-light spiderwebs that can support the comparatively massive weight of the spider, the modular nets could aggregate to occupy long stretches of forest. In the center of each web, a steel-framed base holds a specimen collection system and a small laboratory. The teardrop-shaped blob could touch down at the forest floor when necessary, or hang slightly below the canopy layer.

Below the treetops, the fabric is less loosely knit, letting birds and insects pass through its walls undisturbed. Above the canopy, the weave is more dense, supporting the weight of humans and specimen collection. It’s not completely clear how the web-like system is actually deployed, but Weng shows them being dropped into place from passing airborne vehicles.

Weng adds that the system has a secondary purpose: to raise awareness of deforestation by promoting eco-tourism. “The positive occupation of the territory it enables could provide a level of surveillance that helps to protect both the endangered environment and the indigenous population,” she writes.

It’s nice to see the AA and Foster + Partners–two institutions devoted to emerging architectural technologies, if not always social innovation–awarding projects that attempt to address real-world problems. In 2011, they awarded the prize to a proposal for a sanitation hub in Haiti.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.