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Science: Inspired by Nature, Rubbery Robot Can Self-Camouflage


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Stephen Morin of Harvard University describes the design and capabilities of the color-changing, flexible robot.

Researchers have developed a soft, flexible robot that can change colors to blend in or stand out in its environment.

A study in the 17 August issue of Science describes the device, which may be useful for research on animals’ camouflage and display behaviors. It also may inspire designs for machines that aren’t supposed to be noticed, such as those that operate in public spaces. Alternatively, these devices could be helpful in situations where a robot does need to stand out, such as a search and rescue operation in dimly lit conditions.

The robot is a rubbery, four-limbed machine that is roughly fist-sized. It’s threaded with many tiny channels and tethered to a control system. Forcing air through the channels makes it “walk.”

Stephen Morin, George Whitesides, and colleagues at Harvard University have now added a color-changing component to the robot, using a separate layer of microchannels through which a variety of dyes can be pumped. The device can thus camouflage itself, as an octopus does, or signal its presence, like a firefly.

The temperatures of the dyes can be modified, so that the device can also change color in the infrared spectrum. This aspect of the technology was also inspired by nature; some snakes, for example, can sense infrared light using specialized organs.

In the future, larger-bodied machines or robots that can carry power sources and pumps might enable autonomous operation, according to the researchers.

Read the abstract, “Camouflage and Display for Soft Machines,” by Stephen Morin and colleagues.