Watch: The Robotic Chameleon That Will Revolutionize Camouflage

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Disguise and camouflage are two of the most useful tactics for any military. We see examples of their effectiveness everywhere. From plain old military fatigues helping soldiers blend in with their surroundings, to the Soviet Union employing the techniques of Maskirovka to covertly deploy several nuclear missiles and 40,000 troops to Cuba during the Missile Crisis. For the modern military, on the cusp of automation and robotisation, camouflage is practically a necessity.

Robots are great at performing particular tasks, and they’re getting better each year. Battlefield robots are soon to be a reality, but until now they suffered a distinct disadvantage – they’re too easy to spot. A big, lumbering machine stands out from its surroundings, even if it is covered in non-reflective paint. It seems now there is finally a solution.

Taking inspiration from the natural world’s champions in hide-n-seek, the humble chameleon, materials scientist Guoping Wang and his colleagues at Wuhan University in China have created a robot that changes colours according to its surroundings.

The plastic robot the team created is covered in digital “scales,” each made of indium tin oxide, a transparent conductor often used in video displays, and covered with a thin film of glass. The glass is etched with rows of microscopic holes that are in turn filled with bumps of gold, that are then topped with a layer of silver-containing gel. When an electric current is passed through the scales, the electricity either deposits or removes silver from the gold – depending on the charge of the current. By altering the shape and size of the bumps, the team managed to easily change the colour of the scales. Add in a colour sensor, and presto – a digi-chameleon.

In the future, according to Wang, the process could be applied to create colour-changing camouflage for soldiers, as well.