Skip to main content

MIT's color-changing robot 'skin' was inspired by the golden tortoise beetle

color changing 3d printed skin mit printable gold bug 02 press
Subramanian Sundaram
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a 3D-printed robot “skin” capable of changing color according to the physical stimuli that it receives. The work was inspired by the so-called “goldbug,” a golden tortoise beetle, which changes color in the wild.

“I was googling online about two and a half years ago, looking for creatures that change their color, and found out about this beetle,” project leader, Subramanian Sundaram, an MIT graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, told Digital Trends. “The golden tortoise beetle is incredibly interesting. One of the things it does is that, when it’s disturbed or scared, it drains out the fluid in its shell which is normally golden in color, but becomes a reddish-brown. I was interested by the idea that this beetle was able to respond to mechanical disturbances by changing the color and transparency of its outer shell. I thought we might be able to replicate that.”

Related Videos

To create a similar effect in their robot “skin,” Sundaram and colleagues used 3D-printed flexible circuitry on a plastic substrate. The substrate was printed using an MIT MultiFad 3D printer, with the color-changing part being prompted by electrodes that are attached to the T-shaped object. The printed circuit board boasts two printed transistors and a so-called “pixel,” referring to a semiconducting polymer.

Subramanian Sundaram
Subramanian Sundaram

In all, it serves as a neat proof of concept for scientists’ newfound abilities to print flexible substrates made up of multiple materials that are capable of demonstrating unique behaviors. Right now, there are no obvious useful applications for the robot skin, but it fits into a broader research theme of materials capable of drastically changing when outside stimuli are applied.

“Going forward, I think that adding actuation to this would be very interesting,” Sundaram continued. “I don’t know how long it will take to reach that point, but it would also be interesting to add elements of communication so that you could have it transfer data to a larger computer. All of this will require key breakthroughs to take place, but these are definitely the directions we’re interested in.”

A possible future robot that could change its skin tone to camouflage itself at a moment’s notice? Color us interested — no pun intended.

Editors' Recommendations

Ceramic ink could let doctors 3D print bones directly into a patient’s body
ceramic ink 3d printed bones bioprinting australia 2

Scientists use a novel ink to 3D print ‘bone’ with living cells

The term 3D bioprinting refers to the use of 3D printing technology to fabricate biomedical parts that, eventually, could be used to create replacement organs or other body parts as required. While we’re not at that point just yet, a number of big advances have been made toward this dream over the past couple of decades.

Read more
The future of making stuff: Inside the evolution of 3D printing with Formlabs
future of 3d printing formlabs ces 2021 castablewax40

When 3D printing went mainstream in the mid-2010s and exploded in popularity, it was about as hyped up as it possibly could be. Evangelists told us it would fundamentally transform the way goods were made, and usher in a bold new era of creative freedom. Soon, they said, we’d be able to fabricate anything we wanted on-demand, Star Trek replicator style, right from the comfort of our own homes.

But of course, 3D printing didn't really live up to that high-flying dream. Instead, it made a momentary splash and then largely returned to the fringes, gaining adoption in hobbyist workshops and cutting-edge product design labs, but not really changing the face of manufacturing in the way many hoped it might.

Read more
3D scanning sheds light on newly discovered 2-million-year-old fossilized skull
3D scanned skull

3D scanning dire wolves, ground sloths, and mammoths in California with Artec Space Spider

Sometimes it takes the very latest technology to answer some of the oldest questions. This week, researchers announced the discovery of an incredibly rare, 2-million-year-old skull in South Africa that is a cousin species to “Homo erectus,” the famous extinct archaic human from the Pleistocene era.

Read more