Cephalopods, like the octopus and cuttlefish, might not have the mass appeal of sharks or baby penguins, but they’re not any less amazing. When threatened (or hunting) these sea creatures are able to summon up instant camouflage, bathing their exterior in patterns and colors that allow them to blend in perfectly with their surroundings.

For centuries, this instinctive cloaking ability has existed only in nature, but now Harvard robotics experts are close to recreating this type of camouflage in a lab. This latest bit of bio-mimicry involves soft, silicone-based robots with a web of tiny channels flowing through their silicone skin. When triggered, these channels fill with dyes that allow the bots to blend in to their surroundings, or stand out in stark contrast.

The study, published in the latest edition of Science, proves that building robots to operate only like mammals might be a mistake. By incorporating the muscle structure of cephalopods, it could open up an entirely new world of flexible, self-camouflaging robotics.

“Such a ‘dynamic coloration’ system could one day have a host of uses, ranging from helping doctors plan complex surgeries to acting as a visual marker to help search crews following a disaster,” said Stephen Morin, a postdoctoral fellow in the Harvard Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and lead author of the paper.

Creating robots that could mimic the movements of an octopus was no easy feat. In 2011, the research team published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that outlined details of a “soft robot” that could crawl and bend under obstacles. The machine was made from silicon-based polymers, and its movement was driven by air pumping through tiny cylinders in its four “legs.”

Adding the channel system throughout the faux epidermis adds another layer of complexity to these squishy robots. In addition to changing color, hot or cold fluids can be pumped into the channels, enabling the robots to be thermally camouflaged, while fluorescent liquids allow them to glow in the dark.

Main photo credit: Harvard