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Octopus-inspired robot skin goes 3-D

Engineers create stretchable silicone material that inflates to predesigned textured shapes

by Emma Hiolski
October 13, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 41

Engineers have created inflatable silicone skins with fiber mesh that form programmed shapes, like these river rocks (22- by 22-cm).
Credit: Science

Engineers have used the fluid and flexible nature of the octopus as inspiration for designing soft-bodied robots and artificial skins that change color or glow. Now, researchers have captured another facet of octopus camouflage: three-dimensional skin texturing. Cephalopods such as octopuses and cuttlefish raise specialized bumps on their skin, called papillae, to blend into their surroundings. One papilla can form a variety of shapes, such as a cone or trilobe, depending on how the muscles within it are arranged. To create an artificial skin that mimics this 3-D camouflage strategy, a team led by Robert F. Shepherd of Cornell University embedded laser-cut fiber mesh into a mold containing a silicone liquid. The mesh—a common nonwoven nylon embroidery stabilizer—provides structural support to cured silicone when the material is inflated and, depending on the laser-cut pattern, helps create a targeted shape (Science 2017, DOI: 10.1126/science.aan5627). The engineers used an algorithm, developed by lead author James H. Pikul, now at the University of Pennsylvania, to determine which pattern to cut in the mesh and created shapes including cones, river rocks, succulent plants, and topographical maps. These skins could help disguise robots or even serve as customizable shipping material. Though each skin can form only one predesigned shape, Shepherd says replacing the mesh with inflatable tubing, or using a voltage gradient instead of air, could one day make skins that form multiple shapes.

Laser-cut fiber mesh embedded in silicone helps lend the shape of a succulent to artificial skin.
Credit: Science


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