End the Lie

DARPA’s new cheap robot is capable of changing apparent shape, color, temperature and more

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By End the Lie

In nature, some organisms use bioluminescence to communicate. DARPA’s soft robot achieves the same glowing effect by pumping chemiluminescent solutions through channels in the robot’s color layer. (Image credit: DARPA)

It seems that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has taken a major step forward in creating an astoundingly cheap and quite small robot that “can change the color, contrast, pattern, apparent shape, luminescence, and surface temperature of soft machines for camouflage and display,” according to a report published in Science.

Along with the DARPA-funded miniature spy computer known as the Falling or Ballistically-launched Object that Makes Backdoors (F-BOMB), this robot very well could be produced for less than $100 per unit with costs going down even further over time.

The robot, which is part of the Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program, is around the size of an average person’s palm and can be seen in motion in the below video provided by DARPA:

It utilizes microfluidic networks to create the astounding changes which even “can be changed simultaneously in the visible and infrared — a capability that organisms do not have. These strategies begin to imitate the functions, although not the anatomies, of color-changing animals,” according to Science.

The research is being performed at Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering under Drs. George Whitesides and Stephen Morin while the funding is coming from DARPA.

The researchers have demonstrated that microfluidic channels can be used in soft robots for a range of functions from camouflage to display, actuation to fluid transport and temperature regulation.

DARPA states that they are backing the research – with our non-existent tax dollars I might add – because they believe the future of defense will include a wide range of robots of various shapes and sizes.

One of the most remarkable aspects of this technology is the incredibly low cost compared to the costs usually associated with robotics.

The silicone-based robots utilize a manufacturing method which leverages the power of molds and the microfluidic channels are created by introducing many narrow channels into the mold.

These channels allow various fluids as well as air to be pumped through the robot thus changing color, shape, temperature and even produce a glow through chemiluminescence.

However, the most vital function of these small passages is the ability to create movement through the pneumatic pressurization and inflation of the channels in a coordinated fashion.

“DARPA is developing a suite of robots that draw inspiration from the ingenuity and efficiency of nature,” said DARPA program manager for M3, Gill Pratt. “For defense applications, ingenuity and efficiency are not enough—robotic systems must also be cost effective.”

“This novel robot is a significant advance towards achieving all three goals,” Pratt added.

At this point, what seems to be the biggest drawback to this technology is the relative slow speed of travel with a maximum of 67 meters per hour, or around 0.04163 miles per hour.

DARPA has said that they will continue to focus on making the movements more smooth but they did state that the speed of the robot’s movement is secondary to the flexibility and ability to maneuver in tight spaces.

As you can see in the above video, the researchers used a tethered option for the robot which has the power source and control system outside of the robot itself.

Leaving the pumps and power source outside of the robot significantly reduces the size and weight of the robot but future iterations of the technology could very well have the equipment onboard the robot itself, making it an entirely self-contained system.

Of course in an attempt to make it seem like this is a project which will somehow benefit us all instead of just the parasitic “defense” industry and the military, they claim that this technology could have medical applications as well.

“Aside from their potential tactical value, DARPA said soft robots with microfluidic channels could also have medical applications,” writes Government Security News. “The devices could simulate fluid vessels and muscle motion for realistic modeling or training, and may be used in prosthetic technology.”

Indeed, DARPA has worked on some quite impressive prosthetic technology in the past, but to think of DARPA as anything but a research and development arm of the Pentagon is clearly absurd.

DARPA is and always will be tasked, first and foremost, with providing the military with some of the most unbelievable technology on Earth. I believe that any claims to the contrary are just a sorry attempt to justify the massive sustained expenditures devoted to the shadowy agency.

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3 Responses to DARPA’s new cheap robot is capable of changing apparent shape, color, temperature and more

  1. JD August 20, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    This will be given GPS coordinates, craw undetected, and detonate on target.

  2. JD August 20, 2012 at 10:36 AM

    This will also go to the bank and make deposits for you…HA! HA! HA!

  3. Christian Dystopian August 24, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    The flexible, self regulating camouflage suit has long been a favorite of sci fi & tech war stories. A skin tight version has been featured many times utilizing micro fluidity to temporarily stop bleeding as well as injections automatic or on demand of stimulants, painkillers and other physical enhancement techniques.
    What these things are actually used for in war including Law Enforcement is going to be up to the ethics and morals of those controlling such technology. Development of such thing may be hastened or slowed by societal influence but such things will be developed.
    I try to stay abreast of such things not to delay or prevent their inevitable development but rather to hasten development of Ethics to deal with this science.
    Clearly mankind is able to do things we have not neither the ethics nor the moral judgment to use only for good. We really don’t know the definition of good long term and historically ignore it short term.
    This will always be the case I believe as a Christian. Should man ever become as good at morality as he is with gadgets what need will he have for God? In response to those that insist we are advancing in this direction I ask.
    Upon what scientific basis do you postulate humanities moral/ethical treatment of anything, has ever kept pace with his development of well, anything?


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