Color-Changing Soft Robots Will Someday Simulate The Crawlers Of The Deep

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Soft robots are made of silicone and use hydraulic controls to move across a surface or lift an object. Researchers at Harvard University have gotten these guys to walk around (albeit while tethered to a heavy control unit) and now they’ve gotten them to change color.

The robots work like octopi in that the pigment colors their skin based on surrounding rocks and foliage.

In an article in Science Magazine, the team describes how they’ve created a system that senses the surrounding color and then pumps in color. You can read more about the project on the DARPA website where they go in depth on the impetus behind the project.

Why does this matter to the Department of Defense? DARPA foresees robots of many shapes and sizes contributing to a wide range of future defense missions, but robotics is still a young field that has focused much of its attention so far on complex hardware. Consequently, the costs associated with robotics are typically very high. What DARPA has achieved with silicone-based soft robots is development of a very low cost manufacturing method that uses molds. By introducing narrow channels into the molds through which air and various types of fluids can be pumped, a robot can be made to change its color, contrast, apparent shape and temperature to blend with its environment, glow through chemiluminescence, and most importantly, achieve actuation, or movement, through pneumatic pressurization and inflation of the channels.

“DARPA is developing a suite of robots that draw inspiration from the ingenuity and efficiency of nature. For defense applications, ingenuity and efficiency are not enough—robotic systems must also be cost effective. This novel robot is a significant advance towards achieving all three goals,” said DARPA project manager Gill Pratt.

The robots can also simulate muscle motion for flesh simulators or prosthetics.

These robots will help fill the gap between gasp-inducing monsters like Big Dog and microdrones like those at the GRASP lab. They’re cheap, soft, and can camouflage themselves in dangerous situations. Plus they’re creepy as heck.