Cephalopods like cuttlefish can change coloration quickly for both camouflage and as a warning

Camouflage system mimics cuttlefish skin

An electronic camouflage system inspired by the skin of cuttlefish can automatically read its environment and adapt to mimic its surroundings.

The optoelectronic camouflage system was inspired by the skins of cephalopods, a class of marine animals including octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, which can change coloration quickly, both for camouflage and as a form of warning.

By using a temperature-sensitive dye coupled with a distributed array of photosensors on a thin flexible electronic substrate the researchers were able to create a system capable of automatically adapting to match the coloration of its surroundings.

The one-inch square prototype device currently only works in black and white, with shades of grey, but the team says it could be designed to work in the full colour spectrum and could easily be scaled up for manufacturing.

While the most valuable applications would be for defence or industry, lead researcher Cunjiang Yu of the University Houston says consumer applications such as toys and wearable electronics also could offer a market for such a technology.

“Our device sees colour and matches it. It reads the environment using thermochromatic material,” said Yu, lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The flexible skin of the device is comprised of ultrathin layers, combining semiconductor actuators, switching components and light sensors with inorganic reflectors and organic colour-changing materials that allow the device to autonomously match the colour of its background.

A base layer of flexible substrate contains distributed, multiplexed photodetectors that mimic the functionality of the photosensitive opsin proteins found in cephalopod cells.

This is overlaid with a top layer composed of a temperature-sensitive dye that appears black at low temperatures and clear at temperatures above 47°C over a white reflective layer of silver and an ultrathin silicon diode to modulate the dye’s temperature.

According to the authors the system is capable of responding to various changing patterns of illumination without user input within one to two seconds.

The results suggest that the technologies and operating principles of the system could lead to fully tunable, full-spectrum adaptive camouflage integrated into scalable electronics with commercial, military, and industrial applications, the researchers say.

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