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Dynamic camouflage will let soldiers hide like a squid

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Some of the newest technology and development in camouflage is inspired by a 60-million-year-old creature: squid.

In a lab at UC Irvine, chemical engineering professor Alon Gorodetsky and his team are making synthetic squid protein using bacteria. The lab is recreating a protein called Reflectin — it’s what allows squid to change color and disappear into their surroundings by manipulating light — in the hopes that it could someday be used by the military as part of more effective camouflage.

Gorodetsky is working on taking the purified protein to coat tape, stickers and other materials in an effort to use the natural camouflage properties outside the ocean. His work is part of a larger movement towards dynamic camouflage — camouflage that responds to external stimuli and adapts. 

The early versions of Reflectin-coated stickers appear to change color and reflect light in unique ways. A piece of shiny, coated material that normally has a metallic blue color will appear red if placed on a red piece of paper. The coating can take on colors across the spectrum, and can even reflect back infrared light, which most things can’t. 

The Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have taken note of the animal-inspired research. Squid-protein coating could potentially help soldiers be less vulnerable to thermal or infrared detection, and could be used to create distinct tags or patterns so that team members could recognize one another in the dark, thus preventing friendly fire. 

The squid protein has multiple uses — Reflectin could also be used in clothing to help regulate body temperature to keep cool during a workout or to keep warm with a very thin jacket. That’s what has the DOE and clothing company Under Armour so excited. Gorodetsky says the defense and energy applications for Reflectin complement each other.

“[They are] two sides of the same coin, whether you’re working to control radiative emissions for energy applications or whether you’re working to make it harder for someone to detect you, the technology will be quite similar,” he says.

Gorodetsky says color-changing clothing could be on the way in the next decade, even further out to 30 or 40 years from now, camouflage could become even more adaptive.

“You could have a shirt that looks more like formal wear in one situation and then changes to look more like an informal T-shirt in another situation,” he says.

Even though this type of research is in very early stages, Gorodetsky says the future of camouflage is dynamic.

“That’s really the exciting area to go into,” he says. “Using natural systems and animals for inspiration, because the things that they can do in terms of camouflage are far beyond anything that we’ve been able to do artificially.”

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