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Elias Levy / CC BY 2.0

A Penn researcher is working to create a programmable material that mimics the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, which refers to a collection of marine animals including octopi, cuttlefish and squid. 

Penn researcher and assistant professor James Pikul has been collaborating with a team of researchers from Cornell University on the project, which is a significant development in soft robotics — a new field of research involving biologically inspired robots with manipulatable skins. 

Cephalopods are known for their ability to change the texture of their skin, which allows them to blend into their surroundings. They do so by flexing small muscles just under their skin to create different physical patterns, morphing from smooth to rough textures in fractions of a second. Pikul and his team of researchers use small pockets of air that inflate and deflate to mimic this behavior, and hope to use this technology to make robots capable of camouflage in the near future.  

In this 2017 study, the researchers explain that there is a synthetic material at the core of this technology. They rely on “synthetic tissue groupings” that can transform from 2-D surfaces to 3-D textures.  

This technology has a range of applications, said Italian researcher Cecilia Laschi to NBC News. It could help robots in the military blend into their environments to avoid damage or help bring scientific tools and robots closer to animals in nature. 

The specific functionality that Pikul and his team want to mimic is that of the papillae, the small bumps that octopus can control to change the texture of their skin.

The current model developed by Pikul’s team involves concentric circles of fiber-mesh air pockets covered by a thin skin of silicone. They have been able to mimic certain species of succulents and textures of smooth stones with their technology.  

Above all, researchers want this technology to be “fairly easy to use" so that nearly everyone will be able to take advantage of the technology.