Color changing skin could one day enhance soft robots

A newly developed synthetic cephalopod skin could one day help soft robots change color to blend in with their environment.
By Dan Taylor | Oct 17, 2017
An international team of researchers has developed a synthetic cephalopod skin that can transform from a flat, two-dimensional surface to a three-dimensional one with bumps and pits, according to research published in the journal Science.

The new technology is based off of octopi and cuttlefish, both of which can rapidly change the color and texture of their skin to blend into their surroundings. The scientists hope that same idea can one day be applied to soft robots that are typically covered in a layer of stretchy silicone.

"Camouflaged robots may hide and be protected from animal attacks and may better approach animals for studying them in their natural habitats," said Cecilia Laschi, a professor of biorobotics at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies who wrote an accompanying article also published in Science, according to Live Science. "Of course, camouflage may also support military applications, where reducing a robot's visibility provides it with advantages in accessing dangerous areas."

The team made the new substance by taking inspiration from the small bumps -- known as papillae -- that octopi and cuttlefish use to camouflage. While they cannot perfectly copy the structures, the team hopes to use air pockets beneath silicone skin to mimic them This would allow machines to rapidly change their outer layer in a variety of different ways.

To combine the two technologies, researchers in the study embedded small fiber-mesh spheres into the silicone. That change allowed them to specifically control and shape the texture in the same way an octopus moves its skin. They then reinforced the mesh to gain even more control over the shape as the material inflated.

This new technology is a big step for robotics, but sophistication is not the experiment's main goal. Rather, researchers hope they can make the technology fairly easy to use. While the shifting skin has a lot of industry potential, the team also wants it easily accessible for hobbyists and those in academia.

This study is exciting, but it is merely the first step on a much longer journey. The team next plans to follow up on their initial research to see what else they can uncover. For example, researchers have already begun to replace the inflation with electric currents to see if the system can work without air pressure. There is even a chance the process can be applied to materials where surface area plays a significant role, like batteries or coolants.

"We're still very much in the exploratory phase of soft robotics," said study co-author Robert Shepherd, a researcher at Cornell University. "We're just at the beginning, and we have great results."

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