Cephalopod-Inspired Robot

A color-changing machine mimics the rubbery body and flexible movements of octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish.

Aug 17, 2012
Jef Akst

Harvard University researchers have designed a robot that can change color to camouflage itself with the environment, just as the Houdini-like octopuses that have achieved YouTube fame can do. With a rubbery, flexible body, the robot resembles a 4-legged clear Gumby. As it walks onto different colored surfaces, dye is pumped in to conceal the machine against its background. The team, which published its results this week in Science, can also pump in luminescent dyes to make the robot glow in the dark, or dyes that affect the robot’s visibility the infrared, in addition to the visible, light spectrum, allowing the researchers to make the robots camouflaged in one spectrum, but stand out in the other.

"Conventional robotics is a pretty highly developed area, and if you look at various robots you find that most are basically built on the body plan of a mammal,” coauthor George Whitesides told BBC News. "Our question is: Why do you have to do that? Why not think about organisms that are soft, that might have quite different structures and ways of moving and strategies for camouflage. And the obvious place to look is underwater."

Currently, the liquid dyes are stored in a reservoir and pumped into the robot through tubes, but going forward, the scientists could incorporate the dyes within the center of the robot’s body, more like in a real color-changing animal.

The potential applications for such a dynamic robot include search-and-rescue missions, in which the robots could be trained to identify objects and then makes themselves visible. Best of all, the robots are relatively cheap to make.

"For a mission like search and rescue, these kind of robots could in principle be throwaway,” Whitesides told the BBC. “So if you took a $25,000 robot and sent it in and the building falls down, then that is a real issue. If you send one in which is $100 and the roof falls in, you really don't care."

For videos of a robot in action, see the BBC News story.