Researchers have developed a system — inspired by nature — that allows the soft robots to either camouflage themselves against a background, or to make bold color displays. Such a “dynamic coloration” system could one day have a host of uses, ranging from helping doctors plan complex surgeries to acting as a visual marker to help search crews following a disaster.

Just as with the soft robots, the “color layers” used in the camouflage start as molds created using 3-D printers. Silicone is then poured into the molds to create micro-channels, which are topped with another layer of silicone. The layers can be created as a separate sheet that sits atop the soft robots, or incorporated directly into their structure. Once created, researchers can pump colored liquids into the channels, causing the robot to mimic the colors and patterns of its environment.

The system’s camouflage capabilities aren’t limited to visible colors though.

By pumping heated or cooled liquids into the channels, researchers can camouflage the robots thermally (infrared color). Other tests described in the Science paper used fluorescent liquids that allowed the color layers to literally glow in the dark.

The uses for the color-layer technology, however, don’t end at camouflage.

Just as animals use color change to communicate, there are envisions about robots using the system as a way to signal their position, both to other robots, and to the public. As an example, the possible use of the soft machines during search and rescue operations following a disaster. In dimly lit conditions a robot that stands out from its surroundings (or even glows in the dark) could be useful in leading rescue crews trying to locate survivors.

Going forward, researchers hope to explore more complex systems that use multiple color layers to achieve finer control over camouflage and display colors, as well as ways to create systems — using valves and other controls — that would allow the robots to operate autonomously.

This story is reprinted from material from
Harvard University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.