Cornell University engineers are working on a type of camouflage that can emulate shape-shifting octopuses through a programmable 3D, silicone material for robots as well as certain military applications.

Robotics, especially the field of soft robots, could be greatly benefited by such camouflage, CBC reports. Apart from military applications, smart devices and gadgets that can change texture as and when they are used and touched could also make use of the technology.

Robots are getting smarter day by day. With fast developing AI, they have become smart enough to even be panellists at the UN, but their appearance is still a bit unnerving. It is, however, not too farfetched to think of a time when robots are able to not only think like humans, but also look and feel like humans, the researchers believe.

"We could one day see robots with soft, human-like skin, or capabilities that allow them to change their shape," said James Pikul, lead author of the research paper. He developed the material with colleague Robert Shepherd at Cornell University.

Pikul pointed out that one of the greatest challenges is controlling the soft materials. Soft robotics is a field that is still in its initial stages. Only last month, there was a report of inflatable, 3D printed muscle-like material that could be programmed.

This material, however, is different in that it is made of balloon-like silicone material and merged with non-woven fabric. By layering this "elastamer" over rings of fabric, they were able to control the inflation of the "skin". An algorithm then makes sure the correct level of air pressure is applied to it to create various textures.

"One of the things that we're really interested is this idea of vanishing interfaces," said Pikul.

He went on to explain how a plain dashboard of a car can be infused with the skin to look plain and ordinary like a sheet of leather, but once inflated, it could become, for example, a 3D map that displays navigation information so people could actually feel like they are driving through streets surrounded by buildings rather than a flat display.

The report notes that the research was supported by the US Army Research office.

The researchers turned to sea dwelling creatures like octopuses for inspiration because they are masters at disguising themselves in their environment. Their skin is made of little bumps called papillae - muscles that can expand or retract creating different textures to match their environment and blend in perfectly with their surroundings. This allows certain types of sea creatures called cephalopods to have no real skeletal structures, but allow them to swim, crawl, pick up things, and even run across the ocean floor with ease.

When under attack or in distress, or even when hunting, it has been noted that certain types of octopuses can perfectly blend in with a rock or sea weed they are near.

This includes not only colour transformation, but also the surface texture of the rocks or weeds they are perched on. The synthetic skin developed by the researchers has replicated the way papillae work.