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The robots of the future will hide in your garden under this pulsating silicone skin

The next generation of soft robots might be able to hide in plain sight, thanks to a newly developed, camouflaging skin that can rapidly transform from a flat silicone sheet to a 3D shape.

The new camouflage, described this week in the journal Science, could help surveillance robots take on a texture that lets them blend into the background. But there’s a catch: it can only take on a single preplanned, built-in texture, such as that of bumpy rocks, or cabbage-shaped succulents. So unless a soft robot wants to hide in a garden, it’s going to have to wait for better stealth upgrades.

The amazing inflating succulent.
Video by J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017)

Researchers at Cornell University took inspiration for their new camouflage from octopuses, the squishy muses of robot engineers. Besides their undeniable resemblance to the literary monster Cthulhu (a clear bonus), octopuses are masters of disguise. Some species can change their skin color, and some can also rapidly alter their skin texture by controlling little clusters of muscles that lift and shape to form bumps, spikes, or ridges.

The researchers poured silicone into a mold to resemble the skin, and placed a fiber mesh on top of it to mimic the muscles. Then, they laser cut away the mesh in a pattern, poured more silicone on top, and let the whole thing dry into a silicone-mesh sandwich. Wherever the mesh had been cut away, the silicone could expand when inflated to form a 3D shape.

The black portion is the embedded mesh, and the clear regions are where it’s been cut away — letting the silicone expand more freely.
Video by J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017)

Researchers then painted one sheet gray, and cut the mesh so the silicone would inflate in a rock-like pattern. They painted another green and shaped it like a rosette, inspired by a cabbage-looking succulent. In the future, this camouflaging skin could be used to hide robots designed to spy on animals for research, or people for the military.

Why is this so upsetting.
Video by J.H. Pikul et al., Science (2017)

Right now, the researchers have to preplan the shapes they cut into the mesh, which restricts a robot’s stealth capabilities. But eventually, the study authors write, it might be possible to create shifting patterns by dialing up or down the stiffness of different portions of the mesh. That could change the shapes the silicone forms.

This new skin is a step toward squishy robotic overlords that can spy on us at will — but that future is still a long way off. For now, the worst this robot skin can do is pulse upsettingly at us in weird, bumpy shapes.

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