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Robot inspired by invertebrates has amazing, squishy possibilities

August 17, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • This flexible robot can change colors to blend in or stand out in its environment. Here, it glows in the dark.
This flexible robot can change colors to blend in or stand out in its environment.… (AFP Photo / Harvard University…)

Researchers at Harvard University have created a robot that can change color in seconds, allowing it to blend seamlessly into a background like a chameleon, or stand out so that it is easy to see.

It can even glow in the dark, and change its temperature.

These are just the latest additions to a family of rubbery, bendable robots first described in a 2011 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by the Whiteside Group, a Harvard-based research group.

The group was interested in creating a robot that was soft, rather than hard and breakable like most of the robots we know. And so they looked to the sea. This robot's design was inspired by invertebrates like squid and starfish and other animals with no hard skeletons.

The squishy robot moves by having air pumped through small cylinders in its body, and is flexible enough to squeeze through a glass plate elevated just 2 centimeters above the ground in under a minute, according to a report in the BBC. 

To make this robot even more like the underwater creatures that inspired its design, Stephen Morin lead a team that added thin, flexible network of tubes just under the robot's "skin." Scientists pump different color dyes into the network of tubes, thereby changing the color of the robot. They can even create intricate patterns, and if they use a chemo-luminescent dye, make the the robot glow in the dark.

The temperature of the fluids can also be controlled, so that the robot can be camouflaged in the infared spectrum too.

The Journal Science has a wonderful video that shows the color changing robot in action, (plus awesome footage of a camouflaging octopus).

That's all very neat, but is it practical? Well, it could be. For example, if you were trapped in a collapsed building, one of these squishy robots could be sent squeezing itself into the rubble, glowing and obvious, to lead you on a path to safety.

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