Engineers were able to develop a flexible material that can morph from a simple two-dimensional surface into three-dimensional shapes or objects. The synthetic material could be used to develop soft robots with camouflaging capabilities.

Inspired By Nature And The Animal Kingdom

The material was inspired by the workings of nature, specifically the way octopuses behave in the marine life environment. Cephalopods, such as octopuses or cuttlefish, are masters in the art of camouflage and concealment.

They are capable of changing colors and shaping the texture of their skin in order to blend in with the environment and avoid detection by predators. To do this, cephalopods use their muscles to create bumps in their skin.

The project was led by James Pikul of the University of Pennsylvania and Robert Shepherd from Cornell University, in collaboration with cephalopod biologist and expert Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL).

"Lots of animals have papillae, but they can't extend and retract them instantaneously as octopus and cuttlefish do," says Roger Hanlon. "These are soft-bodied molluscs without a shell; their primary defense is their morphing skin."

"The degrees of freedom in the papillae system are really beautiful," continues Harlon. "In the European cuttlefish, there are at least nine sets of papillae that are independently controlled by the brain. And each papilla goes from a flat, 2D surface through a continuum of shapes until it reaches its final shape, which can be conical or like trilobes or one of a dozen possible shapes."

How Does The Stretchable Material Work?

To create the three-dimensional bumps, the scientists have placed a "fiber mesh" into a stretchable silicone material and then inflated it with air. The action closely resembles the papillae that cephalopods inflate.

The Future Of Camouflaged Soft Robotics

In the future, this technology could help scientists and biologists to study octopuses and other animals in their own habitats.

It could also be used by the military in the areas of "virtual reality environment" and assistive robotics. The U.S. Army and Air Force seem to be very interested with this kind of technology as they have funded Robert Shepherd's latest research.

In the realm of soft robotics, many scientists nowadays are turning towards the animal kingdom in order to develop robots capable of performing complex tasks. Earlier this year, researchers from Stanford University have unveiled a technology that has the ability to grow thousands of times its original length.

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