In other words, the silicone skin is like a super-complex, high-tech balloon that is pre-programmed to respond to its environment in various ways. “To design a particular shape,” Cohen explained in a statement, “you figure out what its slope is at every point, then you design the amount of strain by including more or less mesh in the region.”
Hanlon could relate to Cohen’s fascination. He pointed the team at Cornell towards papillae, which are small, rounded protuberances on animal organs. “Lots of animals have papillae, but they can’t extend and retract them instantaneously as octopus and cuttlefish do,” Hanlon told Phys.org. “These are soft-bodied molluscs without a shell; their primary defense is their morphing skin.” When a cephalopod wants to look cool and attract a mate, or navigate the waters, it stays smooth, literally, according to Hanlon. Bumpiness is for defense—it helps the octopus look like and blend into rocks and other things in its environment.
Cohen wanted to replicate this morphing effect with silicone, the primary material used in the field of soft robotics. His team had to enlist the assistance of an octopus expert, someone obsessed with the bumpiness of cephalopod skin, so they called in Roger Hanlon, a cephalopod biologist at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Formerly the lab’s director, and now devoted entirely to the study of marine shape shifters, Hanlon’s biography notes, “I became interested in cephalopods when I encountered an octopus on a coral reef in Panama in 1968. Its body patterning and changing coloration intrigued me, and I am still working to understand its brain and behavior.”
To create a similar smart-morphing mechanism in imitation-octopus skin, Hanlon advised the team to layer silicone and mesh so that the skin could inflate and deflate into various shapes After a few years of work they figured it out together.
The team didn’t create the morphing membrane with a particular application planned but believe it has uses in soft robotics.The work was funded by a grant from the Army Research Office, which is interested in the technology for camouflage purposes. The researchers believe it may be useful in a civilian context as well: for example, it could be used in designs for flat products that can be inflated upon arrival.