The Military Is About To Get Octopus-Inspired Camouflage

Credit: ThinkStock

Credit: ThinkStock

Cephalopods—which include octopuses, squid and cuttlefish—boast enviable hiding skills. In fact, they can render themselves almost invisible by camouflaging themselves to their background. From color to texture to the emanation and refraction of light, cephalopods can achieve a startling variety of ever-shifting optical delights.

Rather ironically—given their unique ability to alter their own color—all octopuses and most cephalopods are actually color blind. When these creatures want to disappear, they manipulate the aesthetics of their own chromatophores (organelles within their cells which contain pigment and refract light) to alter their brightness and pattern according to the background they're currently perceiving. This translocation of pigment and reorientation of reflective plates is achieved in a matter of milliseconds, allowing them to communicate, impress future lovers and alternatively avoid danger or trick some delicious prey into coming just a bit closer. Oh don't mind me, I'm just a pile of rocks! It's also believed they may sense light levels directly with their bodies.

I think we can see where this is going, yes? 

The military wants in on the cephalopod magic; in fact, MIT says that its engineers have long struggled to duplicate their disappearing act in synthetic materials.

And finally, the illustrious day has come.

MIT Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Xuanhe Zhao and Duke University Professor of Chemistry Stephen Craig recently published their findings in Nature Communications, boasting a new material described as a layer of electro-active elastomer that can be adapted to standard manufacturing processes, and which uses readily available materials.

Basically the material is capable of altering its texture, florescence and color when stimulated by an electric field. While the current prototype only boasts a few color options, Zhao and Craig explain that the palette can be readily expanded to accommodate a variety of aesthetic needs. Zhao explains that they've harnessed a physical phenomenon first discovered in 2011: applying voltage to dynamically change surface textures of elastomers.

“The texturing and deformation of the elastomer further activates special mechanically responsive molecules embedded in the elastomer, which causes it to fluoresce or change color in response to voltage changes. Once you release the voltage, both the elastomer and the molecules return to their relaxed state—like the cephalopod skin with muscles relaxed." — Stephen Craig

Sadly, the more sinister aspects of the cephalopods' hunting of prey is currently the most applicable use of the new polymer; fledging crime fighters and performance art dance troupes aren't the front-runners for donning this technology.

Modern warfare often demands troops and vehicles to be consistently on the move; currently our military's camouflage is strictly limited to one particular environment, or "look," at a time. When the militia moves on to a new territory, their inflexible camouflage renders them highly visible. Using Zhao and Craig's new technology, however, both troops and their tanks could constantly shift in response to their surroundings. 

“The U.S. military spends millions developing different kinds of camouflage patterns, but they are all static. Modern warfare requires troops to deploy in many different environments during single missions. This system could potentially allow dynamic camouflage in different environments.” — Xuanhe Zhao

As is often the case with such developments, we both shudder at the ever-evolving ways to slaughter and spy . . . and marvel at the minds behind it. Surely Cirque de Soilel has the budget to invest in psychedelic polymers?

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