BYU engineers design ‘origami’ shield to protect police


Some things simply don’t go together: Snow shovels in Fiji. Heavy metal rock inside the library. Ballpark hot dogs slathered in caviar.

But what about ancient Japanese origami and cutting-edge law enforcement technology?

Surprisingly, engineering professors and students at Brigham Young University say the two fit as naturally as, well, peanut butter and jelly.

An engineering team at the Church-owned university has designed an origami-inspired, portable bulletproof shield that they hope will soon be protecting police officers and others during dangerous shooting situations.

The collapsible, wrap-around shield weighs only 55 pounds and quickly unfolds to stand several feet high. It’s fabricated from multiple layers of bullet-resistant Kevlar fiber and can be easily transported in a patrol car.

Last summer, BYU engineering professor Larry Howell, along with several colleagues and students, began working with federal law enforcement officials to develop a lightweight shield that would provide cover for police officers from gunfire.

Their key challenge was crafting a reliable, sturdy shield that was also portable and could be quickly assembled.

Origami offered the solution.

Origami, of course, is the traditional Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes. It’s been popular for centuries. But origami principles of shaping and managing material space can also be applied in countless engineering enterprises — including the bulletproof shield project, said Professor Howell.

Prototypes of the “origami” shield were initially constructed from folded paper. Subsequent prototypes were made of wood, fiberglass and canvas.

Developing each prototype “was a great opportunity” for BYU students eager to utilize classroom learning in a real-world engineering project, said Professor Howell.

After months of research and trial, the team was ready to fabricate a collapsible shield from Kevlar, the synthetic material used in bulletproof vests and helmets. Much of their work and analysis focused on eliminating vulnerable spots, particularly in the folds of the shield.

Professor Howell admits to mixed feelings when it was time to finally test their shield at a live firing range.

“Here’s your team’s [pet project],” he laughed, “and now someone’s pointing a gun at it.”

Testers fired from short-range a variety of commonly used handguns at the shields — including 9mms, .357 Magnums and .44 Magnums.

The BYU engineers were thrilled with the results.

The handgun rounds did not pierce the Kevlar and the shield remained upright. (The prototype’s level of Kevlar armament is not strong enough to stop bullets fired from a high-powered assault rifle.)

Professor Howell hopes the shield will soon be mass-produced and made available to law enforcement agencies. “We’re now talking to potential commercial partners,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the “origami” shield has caught the attention of police officers. “They’re very excited,” said Professor Howell. “This shield has the potential to be a revolutionary device.”

But enthusiasm in the law enforcement community goes beyond the shield’s practical applications. “They also really appreciate and are happy that people are concerned for their safety.”