Researchers are studying texture-changing octopus skin to see if the military can use its camouflaging properties.
“This research stems from a challenge I posed to professors at Cornell [University in New York] along the lines of why can’t we have a dynamic skin for a wide range of applications,” Samuel Stanton, a program manager with the Army Research Laboratory’s Army Research Office, told Army Times.
The professors were inspired by how an octopus can change the texture and color of its skin to blend in with its surroundings. Humans have this ability with goosebumps, but without the ability to control it like an octopus can.
This new silicone- and mesh-based material can inflate and deflate into various shapes.
Stanton said the team realized they could engineer a more sophisticated way of controlling the growth of textual variation that’s more advanced than just blowing up a balloon.
The basic research is in the early stages, but the team hopes to have the material change color and texture at the same time.
There are many ways this material could be used, including in soft robotics, Stanton said.
“Right now, most robots are rigid structures made out of metal,” he said, adding that applying this material to robots would give them more dexterity when handling a piece of equipment that requires finesse.
“If you’re trying to manipulate something very small and fine with thimbles on your fingers, for example, it’s going to be much more difficult,” he said. “Natural organisms conform to surfaces, so we’d get a lot of dexterity.”
Robert Shepherd, an assistant professor at Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and one of the researchers, said an octopus can only successfully camouflage itself if it matches its posture, color and skin texture to the environment.
“We managed to solve the posture and color change, but we still had the texture change issue,” he told Army Times.
Working with a cephalopod researcher revealed that an octopus squeezes its muscles inward and upward to change its skin texture.
“We use synthetic materials that we call artificial muscles,” Shepherd said. “In our case, it’s rubber that you can pressurize [with air] and cause it to move.”
The material can stretch to more than 700 percent, which means it can start off at 1 centimeter and stretch to over 7 centimeters, he said.
The obvious application for this material is camouflage, Shepherd said.
“You can design skin that would go over vehicles or soldiers,” he said. “You could inflate it to change its shape to blend into the background.”
The material could also make shipping large items easier in the future. Sheets of material could be transported and inflated with stiff foams.
“They could inflate into structural units like housing,” he said. “You could inflate these sheets and infrastructure to take less space up when shipping it.”
Shepherd said it could also be applied to virtual reality simulation so troops could feel what they’re looking at in the headset.
The next step is integrating the color-changing material as a layer on top of the texture-changing material.
Stanton said there are so many possibilities.
“We’re going to break through a barrier here, and it will open up new pathways” to apply the material in the military, he said.