Defense Robots May Get Hi-Tech Skin that Feels – and Includes Camo

The multi-pixel robot skin measures 5 millimeters thick, with each of 64 pixels measuring 4 millimeters. It can be stretched five or six times its size and change color. Photo courtesy of Organic Robotics Lab, Cornell University.The multi-pixel robot skin measures 5 millimeters thick, with each of 64 pixels measuring 4 millimeters. It can be stretched five or six times its size and change color. Photo courtesy of Organic Robotics Lab, Cornell University.

Atlas, the DARPA humanoid robot most recently seen being pushed around and knocked down by a research scientist as it repeatedly tries to lift a box, could soon look even more human thanks to a soft, stretchable skin.

The skin is called hyper-elastic light-emitting capacitor. And not only can it feel pressure – giving Atlas a “sense” of touch – but it will give the military robot a chameleon-like ability to blend in with the environment, according the recent reports.

The new skin, developed in part using Army and Air Force funds, is the work of researchers at Cornell University in New York and the Italian Technology Institute in Pontedera. The paper on the skin was published recently in Science magazine.

The report states the skin is luminescent upon production. But it’s made up of incredibly thin rubber sheets arrayed with individually controllable pixels that enable it to alter its coloration in much the same way as some octopuses, according to the report.

Robert Shepherd, researcher of the project and assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell, said: “We can take these pixels that change color and put them on these robots, and now we have the ability to change their color.”

“Why is that important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connection with us will be important,” he told the Cornell Chronicle earlier this month. “So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions.”

The addition of skin to a robot – especially if it is given human features – should only strengthen the emotional bonds that people have already shown for robots.

Researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, conducted a study several years ago that concluded people watching robots being abused empathized with the machine and felt badly after seeing it done.

The military says Atlas is intended to be a first-responder.

If so, then a human face would probably be welcome to someone already under serious stress.

The robot camo cover is not the first soft-skin the Defense Department has had a role in developing. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funding helped come up with an inflatable robot arm for nursing care that became the inspiration for the balloon-like robot Baymax in the movie “Big Hero 6.”

Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.