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Octopuses show scientists how to hide machines in plain sight

Sepia apama — giant Australian cuttlefish — expressing its papillae for camouflage purposes. Photo: Roger Hanlon

Scientists have engineered a material that can transform from a 2D sheet to a 3D shape, adjusting its texture to blend in with its surroundings, per a new study published today in Science. They mimicked the abilities of an octopus, which can change both shape and color to camouflage.

Why it matters: This is a first step toward developing soft robots that can hide in plain sight, robotics expert Cecilia Laschi writes of the research. Robots that can camouflage may one day be used in natural environments to study animals more closely than ever before or in military operations to avoid detection, she writes.

How it works: Inspired by octopuses and other cephalopods — which can reversibly change the texture of their skin at high speed — scientists built a silicone structure embedded with a fiber mesh that allows it to contort, lead researcher James Pikul tells Axios. With the current technology, once the final shape is achieved, the material cannot be reformed into other shapes.

What's next: Engineer a material that can change color, too, says Xuanhe Zhao, a robotics expert at MIT. Nature has "many unexpected solutions for problems," he says.