Octopus inspired camouflage

The United States military is funding research into octopus skin to develop new techniques of camouflage.

Blue-ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) Image Credit: Sascha Janson / Shutterstock
Blue-ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena sp.) Image Credit: Sascha Janson / Shutterstock

The U.S. Army and Air Force actually are both funding this project where they want to see how the octopus skin changes its texture and appearance as a protective mechanism. Rob Shepherd, a professor and robotics hardware designer at Cornell University led this research and the findings of the study entitled, “Stretchable surfaces with programmable 3D texture morphing for synthetic camouflaging skins” are published in the latest issue of the journal Science.

Shepherd explained that the way the octopus changes the textures of its skin could be used on the plane’s wings to alter its appearances in combat. The octopus skin he explained, is technologically very advanced. It has a highly developed “sensorimotor control system” according to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. If these were to be understood and utilized, they could lead to development of several technical advancements such as soft robots, adaptive networks and artificial skin.

Shepherd said that octopuses are predators but they are also an easy target for predators. This fear of predators and being attractive to potential mates make them change their skin color and textures. He added however that the current research cannot match this natural wonder but they are trying to understand the details of what an octopus can do and try and match some of its potentials.

He said that they are trying to create virtual reality environments. It could help transform three-dimensional things into flat ones that could be reinflated after they reach their destinations. Those with limited sight could use some of this new technology as assistive robots too he explained. In addition they are creating octopus robots that can mimic the actual ones to go closer to them and help scientists study these shy and generally non cooperative creatures. Artificial skin is also on the cards. As of now the artificial skin that has been developed can only change its flat face to a textured surface. Shepherd said that the real octopuses can shift between two textures and researchers are trying to make these artificial skins attempt to do that. These skins could cover soft robots and help them hide in combat environments to prevent from being attacked.

The study explained how the team led by James Pikul, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania, used a fixed-length fiber mesh embedded within a silicone elastomer to convert a flat object into a 3D structure by inflating it. They thus transformed the painted models of rocks and plants to make a 3D image that could blend into the background. The researchers could reach within 10 percent of the actual model dimensions using this approach. Pikul explained that there are existing methods to control the shape of stretchable materials. However this time they wanted to try a method that was “fast, strong and easy to control”. He said that they drew inspirations from cephalopods like octopuses.

Reference: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6360/210

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