A team of Harvard researchers were sick of seeing robots made to look like humans or dogs or birds so they decided to break the mold. Inspired by underwater creatures like squids and cuttlefish, they designed a squirming, somewhat amorphous four-legged critter that can camouflage itself to blend in with virtually any surface. Made cheaply of silicone layers assembled by a 3D printer, the robot isn’t your typical gear-filled machine. It’s actually powered by hydraulic pumps that fill and deflate dozens of pockets of air to make it move. The researchers, led by Professor George Whitesides, can also pump the bendy bot with different colors of dye to create that camouflage effect. It’s kind of psychedelic.
But what the heck are you supposed to do with it? Well, one idea is to come up with some sort of medical use. Explains Stephen Morin from the research team, “The idea is that if you have a system that can simulate muscle motion very well and a system that can transport fluid, by combining those you can fabricate that device to fit a specific surgical problem.” (For whatever reason, this brings to mind turn-of-the-century scenes of surgeons covering patients with leeches, but that’s probably not what they’re thinking.)
Another idea is to take advantage of the robot’s low cost and color-changing capabilities to set up a signaling system for search-and-rescue missions. “For a mission like search and rescue, these kind of robots could in principle be throwaway,” says Professor Whitesides. “So if you took a $25,000 robot and sent it in and the building falls down, then that is a real issue. If you send one in which is $100 and the roof falls in, you really don’t care.” (Okay, now I’m imagining a really futuristic reincarnation of Lassie.)
Of course, we could always weaponize these critters. Whitesides and his team say that they’re just getting started with this idea and plan to make bigger versions that don’t require external tubes or pumps. Just imagine an army of camouflaged, squid-bots storming into battle with mines on their backs. The enemy wouldn’t even begin to know what to do.