The US military thinks octopus skin might hold the secret to creating advanced robot camouflage

The US military thinks octopus skin might hold the secret to creating advanced robot camouflage
An octopus at the Océarium in Le Croisic, France Loic Venance/Getty Images
An octopus at the Océarium in Le Croisic, France Loic Venance/Getty Images

Imagine a robot that could suddenly inflate an outer layer of skin, causing its shape to morph into something that looked like a pockmarked boulder or a small cactus. This idea of transforming, camouflaged robots might not be too far off — and we’ll have the shapeshifting abilities of octopuses to thank.

Thursday, a group of researchers — led by Rob Shepherd of Cornell University and funded by the U.S. military, according to Newsweek — published their findings in the journal Science, explaining exactly how their research into the transformative properties of octopus skin could have real-world applications.

“Understanding the underlying physical mechanisms could lead to future artificial skins, soft robots or adaptive networks, all an interest to the U.S. Army,” U.S. Army Research Laboratory spokesperson T’Jae Ellis told Newsweek.

Inflatable membranes can imitate the textures of rocks or plants. J. H. Pikul et al./Science

Essentially, what this team of researchers built was a membrane that can inflate into complicated shapes, using sheets of mesh to constrict the membrane in certain areas and allow it to more freely inflate in others. This mesh helps shape the membrane into unusual, organic shapes, which can create the illusion of a rocky surface, for example.

“Inspired by cephalopod muscular morphology, we developed synthetic tissue groupings that allowed programmable transformation of two-dimensional stretchable surfaces into target 3-D shapes,” the study’s abstract says.

Of course, the researcher’s imitation of octopus skin is far simpler and more limited than what actual octopuses can do. According to Scientific American, actual octopuses have a vast network of papillae — small nubs — on their skin. Octopuses have control over the size of these papillae, which allows them to change their skin’s texture in the blink of an eye.

An octopus can change its color and texture almost instantly. Roger Hanlon/YouTube

But right now, the membranes Shepherd and his team created can only oscillate between two states: inflated or deflated. The shape the membrane takes when it’s inflated is the same every single time. More research is needed to make these membranes more dynamic in their shapes.

Octopuses are born with this innate ability to change their form and color on the fly, and we’re still struggling to replicate it. But if we manage to copy this technique more accurately, it could change the way camouflage works forever.