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Military studies squid camouflage

Lydia Mathger

Scientists are studying how squid and other cephalopods change color and pattern of their skin to blend in with their environment in hopes of creating next-generation camouflage for the military. Shown here are chromatophores (large brown, red and yellow structures) and iridophores (pink iridescent splotches) in th esquid Loligo pealeii.

The ability of octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish to instantaneously change the color and pattern of their skin to blend in with their surroundings has caught the eye of the U.S. military. Its goal is a new generation of high-tech camouflage.

The Office of Naval Research has awarded $6 million to a team of U.S. scientists to conduct the basic research required to make the squid-like camo. Precisely how the military will use the technology is classified, noted Roger Hanlon, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. 

One can imagine, though, everything from tanks draped in a skin that constantly updates its look so that it blends in with its surroundings as it rolls through a patchwork of agricultural fields or a uniform that allows soldiers to disappear on crowded urban streets as easily as they do in swampy forests.  

Research approach
Hanlon and colleagues plan to extract the "operating principles" that make the skin of squid, octopuses, and cuttlefish observant, adaptive and responsive to the environment. The information they gather from looking at interactions of pigments and reflectors at the cellular and molecular levels will be used to inform the engineers and scientists building the materials that emulate these properties.

"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."

Another branch of the research effort 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 aims to figure out where the opsins are located in the skin, and where and how they send the light information to change body and skin 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.

Building new materials
It will be up to the team's engineers to try and emulate the skin of the cephalopods, as this class of marine animals is known, using new so-called metamaterials, materials that 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, said the group plans to use patterns of organized nanostructures to create sheets of materials that can change colors quickly — like the pixels of a high-definition television screen — but also see light in the same way that squids do, according to a press release.

A key component of the material will be unique clusters of nanomaterials discovered by Rice chemist Stephan Link, a co-investigator on the grant. Halas said Link's materials are very sensitive to changes in their environment and can more easily change colors than other nanomaterials.

Beyond military
According to Hanlon, this work isn't just for 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!"

How would you use this technology? Weigh in with a comment below.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).