The ability to blend into the surroundings is something that animals have adopted since life began, and they’re still a lot better at it than we are. Crocodiles are among the oldest lifeforms on Earth, and offer some of the earliest signs of life mimicking surroundings. The reptiles simply wait in the water for prey, with colouring that helps them look like floating logs.
Army camouflage stretches back to the 1800s, and it comes in a huge array of different forms. From painted skin, to dyed materials, to netting with bits of foliage attached – troops go to great lengths to disappear, as it can mean the difference between life and death.
The same tact has been working for the Vietnamese Mossy Frog for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Ben Tapley, Zookeeper at ZSL London told Humans Invent, “they literally do look like a ball of moss. If you were to touch one, it would curl up into a ball, and they’ve got lumps and bumps all over them to break up their outline so they can’t really be seen by any predators.”
The Rhino Horned Viper falls into a similar category, with a mixture of mottled patterns and bright spots offering the perfect defence and attack mechanism. “Research suggests that the spots are actually there to replicate the mottled sun penetrating the canopy on the forest floor,” Tapley told us.
Some animals have evolved to be even better at hiding, however, with the chameleon at the top of the pile. Known for being able to change colour at will, the chameleon is the master of disguise. Tapley told Humans Invent that it’s the pigments that help the lizards carry out their party trick: “It’s areas of pigment under the skin, which just kind of dilate and flush through, it’s something that’s controlled by the reptile.”
Ben says that the chameleons are also capable of switching colours when they’re looking to mate – a feature that probably wouldn’t be quite so useful to the world’s greatest fighting forces – but the concept is still one that mankind is attempting to emulate.
UK-based aerospace company BAE Systems is currently leading the way in camouflage development, having already patented a system that helps army products to disappear before the enemy’s infra-red eyes, in a manner that is similar to the chameleon. The system is called ADAPTIV, and BAE has used it to completely change the infra-red footprint of vehicles.
ADAPTIV offers “the ability to mimic natural objects and other vehicles,” along with the “ability to blend into natural surroundings”. Sound familiar? The technology features electronically powered metal pixels that can be mounted to the bodies of tanks and other vehicles. The pixels are then individually heated and cooled depending on requirements, completely changing what shows up on infra-red sights.
BAE have tried mimicking other vehicles – making tanks look like civilian cars – or even blending completely into the background. With modern warfare based increasingly on technology advancement, the animal-inspired active camouflage is a neat and innovative step forward.
Inspired by both the reptile’s ability to change colour, and BEA’s achievements with large vehicles, we wanted to know whether genetic modifications would be a possibility to humans or other animals, allowing other creatures to copy chameleons. Tapley explained to Humans Invent that Melanin was one of the pigments responsible for the lizards changing colour, pointed out it’s a pigment that we share too.
Although it seems far-fetched that we may play with genetics in such a way, Ben did hint at previous attempts at “funny coloured genetically modified sheep”, although didn’t know which pigments had been altered. Perhaps thankfully, it seems like the next breakthrough won’t be brightly coloured humans, with focus of the research facilities being complete invisibility.
Physicists at the University of St Andrews are among the first to take a step towards complete invisibility, leaving regular camouflage – and even BAE’s attempts – look like a technology of the past. Researchers told the New Journal of Physics that they’ve managed to create a metamaterial – an artificially manufactured material – that’s capable of bending light.
With our eyes only capable of seeing objects that light bounces off, the metamaterials are the first step towards being able to make an object completely invisible to the naked eye.
That isn’t the only research leading towards invisibility, however, with Cornell University and Darpa working on hiding events as well as objects, in a field known as spacial cloaking. Research in Nature Magazine highlights the ability to manipulate and control electromagnetic fields, with light once again refracted in a way that the object can be completely hidden.
Nature Magazine points out that “the idea of spacial cloaking consists of the probe light being bent in a precise fashion to prevent it being scattered by the object, which thus remains hidden from an observer.”
The fact the latest research looks at bending light over set spans of time could make a huge difference to the Army, with the potential ability to hide moving objects and carry out entire operations without being spotted. Unfortunately, the research has only managed to hide events for trillionths of a second, and it looks like we’re still decades away if not more from hiding entire armies from opposing sides.
The latest theories on invisibility and temporal cloaking really do look like they could change the world if they finally get turned from theoretical physics into an everyday reality.
And in the meantime? Well, the army will inevitably stick to using camouflage techniques – hiding from predators and prey alike, simply following in the footsteps of a number of ancient animals.