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Science’s newest skin job: a robot that can change its texture on the fly

Most robots stick out in nature like a sore thumbdrive. Now, scientists have found a new way to help them blend in—by changing not only the color, but also the texture of their skin. Inspired by cephalopods—squid, octopus, and cuttlefish—which use ring-shaped muscles to squeeze small bumps on their skin into large bulges that mimic rocks and algae, researchers created similar reversible protrusions with sheets of stretchy silicone. They laminated the sheets with rings and other shapes made of a mesh that won’t stretch. When inflated, the silicone extends outward, restricted in predictable ways by the mesh. In one demonstration, researchers inflated a 22-centimeter flat sheet into what looks like a group of stones in about a second, they report today in Science. They designed another to resemble a succulent plant. A third was embedded with a stretchable electro-luminescent display that made it change color as well as shape. The researchers suggest that replacing the mesh with materials that can change their stretchiness would allow soft robots to take on many more shapes at a moment’s notice.