An octopus can slink through amazingly small spaces–often much to the chagrin of aquarium owners and zookeepers. These animals’ muscular, boneless bodies have just one hard part–a small beak. So the rest of their flexible forms can maneuver into crevasses, along tiny tubes and even through small holes in a finely woven fisherman’s net.
By comparison, most of today’s technology is embarrassingly rigid. The highest-tech robots have joints that are finely articulated and movement that is impressively coordinated.
A handful of engineering teams across the world, however, are taking inspiration from the octopus to build a better bot. Last summer, I visited the lab of bioroboticist Cecillia Laschi at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Livorno, Italy. She has been leading the charge of the Octopus Project, a collaboration of scientists with funding from the European Union and other groups to build a soft-bodied robot octopus. The team had already demoed the elegantly curving silicon robotic octopus arm (which, to my slight terror, I got to feel wrap coolly around my finger). When I toured the seaside lab, they had turned their attention to making a full-body, eight-armed bot that can crawl, jet and even use silicon suckers as sensors (which is all still in the works).
Now, an effort out of Harvard has created an octopus-inspired soft-bodied robot that can also camouflage. The team had lopped off half of the octopus’s limbs to come up with a soft-boded, four-legged robot, which they described in 2011 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The silicone beast locomotes via compressed air. To add camouflaging capabilities, researchers have now integrated super-small micro channels into layers between the silicone sheets. Through these channels, the robot can display colorful, fluorescent or temperature-controlled liquids so it can be detected in the infrared light spectrum. Thus, the flexible robot could be rendered more visible to search-and-rescue crews and disaster survivors, say the researchers, who described the color-shifting advances online August 16 in Science.
“When we began working on soft robots, we were inspired by soft organisms, including octopi and squid,” said Stephen Morin, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard and co-author of the new paper. “One of the most fascinating characteristics of these animals is their ability to control their appearance, and that inspired us to take this idea further and explore dynamic coloration,” Morin said.
It takes the new robot about 30 seconds to shift hues, compared with an octopus’s tenth of a second or so. But we dull humans have to start somewhere.
“Even using simple systems–in this case we have simple, open-ended micro-channels–you can achieve a great deal in terms of your ability to camouflage an object or to display where an object is,” Morin said.
Other groups I’ve talked with for my forthcoming octopus book are working on novel ways to mimic the octopus’s background mimicking ability via even smaller technologies. A group at Rice University in Houston is focused on developing nanomaterials that can sense color and light and simultaneously change to match the environment.
The new octo-inspired bot is pretty cool, but I’m still holding out for an eight-armed, full-mantled machine that can crawl and jet around just like the real thing. Oh, and with split-second nanomaterial color changing, too, of course. Holding my breath.
Read more about this robot’s capabilities and watch a video here.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen