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2019-08-02 12:49:51

The ancient philosopher Aristotle was famously fascinated by the chameleon’s ability to change color at will. Over 2,000 years later, the sui generis reptile remains an object of scientific curiosity.

Inspired by the chameleon, researchers from the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, an affiliated institution of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have developed a flexible, color-changing material used in robots to help them interact with the world around them. The research team, supervised by Du Xuemin, had its study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Matter.

The study centers around a new type of actuator — a device that controls how robots respond to a range of stimuli. Think of actuators as 3D-printed “robot muscles.”

The “structural-color actuators” developed by Du’s team are capable of changing their shape and color in response to changes in their environment. The researchers incorporated the actuators into pinwheel, flower, and “worm-like walker” designs that change colors in response to the atmospheric conditions around them.

Though similar materials have been developed before, the Chinese researchers say their actuators respond to stimuli faster and more intuitively than earlier prototypes: They can perform complex motions like twisting and rolling, as well as change color almost instantaneously, the researchers say.

The study may prove to be an important contribution to the burgeoning field of soft robotics, which deals with constructing robots and machines from highly pliant materials so that their movements mimic those of living organisms.

The same day the study was published in Matter, the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum posted a YouTube video of a cockroach-like soft robot designed by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Tsinghua University capable of being stepped on by a full-grown human and then continuing on its way.

Du’s team isn’t the first group of Chinese researchers to draw inspiration from the chameleon. In March of last year, a team at Southeast University in Nanjing developed a heart-on-a-chip prototype from the cardiac cells of mice and a polymer called hydrogel. The expansion and contraction of the heart cells caused the color of the hydrogel to change. The researchers said such technology could one day be applied to drug testing and other medical research.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Chameleon-inspired structural-color actuators interacting with their environments. From VCG and the official website of the Chinese Academy of Sciences)