Scientists at Harvard University have invented a flexible robot, using polymers, that mimics the motion — and even the camouflage — of an octopus.
The inventors say the robot has several applications: from helping scientists understand how camouflage is used in nature, helping doctors plan complex surgeries, to acting as a visual marker to help search crews following a disaster, reports the Harvard Gazette. The military sees how the robot could help it conduct operations across a broader range of missions, reports CNET.
“When we began working on soft robots,” says Stephen Morin, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, who helped invent the flexible robot, “we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid. One of the fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration.”
The scientists created molds of the soft robots using 3-D printers. They then poured silicone into the molds to create micro-channels, and topped those with another layer of silicone. Researchers then can pump colored liquids into the channels, allowing the robot to mimic the colors and patterns of its surroundings.
The robot’s camouflage capabilities are not limited to visible colors or wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. By pumping heated or cooled liquids into the channels, researchers can camouflage the robots thermally to allow it to be seen in infrared. As described in the paper summarizing the invention in Science, the scientists also used fluorescent liquids that allowed the color layers to literally glow in the dark.
“There is an enormous amount of spectral control we can exert with this system,” Morin says. “We can design color layers with multiple channels, which can be activated independently. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface, I think, of what’s possible.”
Source: “Soft robots go for color, camouflage,” Harvard Gazette, 8/16/12
Source: “Crawling bot glows, camouflages itself with dye,” CNET, 8/18/12
Source: “Harvard researchers demonstrate soft robot camouflage system,” YouTube
Image by S. Morin, Harvard University, used with permission.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.