US Military Studies Squid Camouflage Techniques
(MSNBC.com) ~ The ability possessed by octopus, squid and cuttlefish to instantaneously change colors and patterns on their skin to blend into the background is being studied by the US military.
In the quest for high-tech, next generation camouflage the Office of Naval Research has awarded $6 million to a group of US scientists for conducting basic research into cephalopod hiding abilities. Just exactly how the military would employ such technology remains classified, said Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. One can imagine the many possible applications, from tanks covered in a skin that constantly updates its appearance to blend in with the surrounding countryside, or even a uniform that allows soldiers to fade from view on urban streets as easily as they do in forests or jungles.
Hanlon and colleagues plan to extract the "operating principles" that allow the boneless sea creatures the ability to adapt and respond to changes in the environment. "This is the bio-inspired approach to engineering," Hanlon noted in email to me Monday from Turkey where he is on a research dive. "Let the animals guide some of our work. Animal systems are always more elegant and sophisticated than most folks give them credit for." Part of their research builds on a 2008 discovery by Hanlon and colleagues Lydia Mathger and Steven Roberts, that the skin of these marine animals contains opsins, the same type of light-sensing proteins that function in eyes. The team's goal is to find where the opsins are located, and understand how they send information to change body patterns. "The most exciting possibility is that the opsins may sense light and inform the skin to change (or) refine some aspect of its pattern without sending information back to the brain," said Hanlon, who is also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University.
The team will eventually try to emulate the skin using new, so-called "metamaterials", products which blur the line between material and machine. Naomi Halas, an expert on nano-optics at Rice University in Texas and principal investigator on the grant, says the group plans to use patterns of nanostructures to create thin sheets of materials that can change color quickly, like the pixels on a computer monitor, but that can also sense light. A key component of the "squid skin" will be unique clusters of nanomaterials which can quickly change colors, discovered by Rice chemist Stephan Link. These materials are very sensitive to changes in their environment and can more easily change colors than other nanomaterials.
Hanlon also stated that the squid skin wouldn't be limited to secretive military applications. Industry and society may also benefit from the effort, which will reveal knowledge about combining pigments and reflectors. "Some (of the applications) are as simple as heating and cooling things by absorbing or reflecting radiation," he said. "Detroit can make cars that change color; fashion designers can make dresses that change pattern — highlight of the cocktail party!"