“[Building] the first prototype was very slow, ”says Hwan Ko. The first step was to determine whether the robot would be modeled according to a vertebrate – an animal with a spine – or an invertebrate, such as a squid or an octopus. Since the invertebrate model could offer more freedom of movement, the team initially planned to mimic an octopus, but Hwan Ko says the idea proved “too ambitious.”
After tinkering with different designs and material structures, the team finally decided to tackle the simpler shape of the chameleon itself. By shaping the nanowires into simple patterns made up of dots, lines, or scale shapes, they were able to create the complex effect shown in this video.
Although previous research on artificial camouflage often labeled for military use, Hwan Ko hopes their work will have a wider impact, especially in the fields of transportation, beauty and fashion. Future applications could include cars that adjust their colors to stand out, and even a fabric that changes color.
“This chameleon skin, the surface, is basically a kind of display,” he says. “Can be used for a soft or stretchy or flexible screen.”
Because the technology is temperature dependent, however, it doesn’t work as well in extreme cold, which can make it difficult for an artificial chameleon to realize the full range of colors.
Ramzes Martinez, an assistant professor at Purdue University, who also studies bio-inspired robotics, says translating other biologically inspired systems into new technologies could lead to more options, including systems that help locate earthquake survivors.