Active camouflage

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Photograph of a camouflaged cuttlefish
Cephalopod molluscs such as this cuttlefish can change color rapidly for signaling or to match their backgrounds.

Active camouflage or adaptive camouflage is camouflage that adapts, often rapidly, to the surroundings of an object such as an animal or military vehicle. In theory, active camouflage could provide perfect concealment from visual detection.[1]

Active camouflage is used in several groups of animals, including reptiles on land, and cephalopod molluscs and flatfish in the sea. Animals achieve active camouflage both by color change and (among marine animals such as squid) by counter-illumination, with the use of bioluminescence.

Military counter-illumination camouflage was first investigated during the Second World War for marine use. More recent research has aimed to achieve crypsis by using cameras to sense the visible background, and by controlling Peltier panels or coatings that can vary their appearance.

In animals[edit]

Drawing showing principle of squid counter-illumination camouflage
Counter-illumination camouflage of the firefly squid, Watasenia scintillans uses bioluminescence to match brightness and color of the sea surface above.

Active camouflage is used in several groups of animals including cephalopod molluscs,[2] fish,[3] and reptiles.[4] There are two mechanisms of active camouflage in animals: color change[4] and counter-illumination.[2]


Counter-illumination is camouflage using the production of light to blend in against a lit background. In the sea, light comes down from the surface, so when marine animals are seen from below, they appear darker than the background. Some species of cephalopod, such as the eye-flash squid and the firefly squid, produce light in photophores on their undersides to match the background.[2] Bioluminescence is common among marine animals, so counter-illumination may be widespread, though light has other functions, including attracting prey and signaling.[5][6]

Color change[edit]

Photographs of a fish changing its coloration to match background
Four frames of a peacock flounder show its ability to match its coloration to the sea bed around and beneath it.

Color change permits camouflage against different backgrounds. Many cephalopods including octopuses, cuttlefish, and squids, and some terrestrial amphibians and reptiles including chameleons and anoles can rapidly change color and pattern, though the major reasons for this include signaling, not only camouflage.[7][4] Cephalopod active camouflage has stimulated military research in the United States.[8]

Active camouflage by color change is used by many bottom-living flatfish such as plaice, sole, and flounder that actively copy the patterns and colors of the seafloor below them.[3] For example, the tropical flounder Bothus ocellatus can match its pattern to "a wide range of background textures"[9] in 2–8 seconds.[9] Similarly, the coral reef fish, the seaweed blenny can match its coloration to its surroundings.[10]

In research[edit]

Active camouflage provides concealment by making an object not merely generally similar to its surroundings, but effectively invisible with "illusory transparency" through accurate mimicry, and by changing the appearance of the object as changes occur in its background.[1]

Early research[edit]

Illustration of principle of Yehudi lights, Second World War active aircraft camouflage using forward-pointing lamps of variable brightness
Yehudi lights prototype raised the average brightness of a Grumman Avenger from a dark shape to the same as the sky.

Military interest in active camouflage has its origins in Second World War studies of counter-illumination. The first of these was the so-called diffused lighting camouflage tested on Canadian Navy corvettes including HMCS Rimouski. This was followed in the United States Army Air Forces with the airborne Yehudi lights project, and trials in ships of the Royal Navy and the US Navy.[11] The Yehudi lights project placed low-intensity blue lights on aircraft. As skies are bright, an unilluminated aircraft (of any color) might be rendered visible. By emitting a small, measured amount of blue light, the aircraft's average brightness better matches that of the sky, and the aircraft is able to fly closer to its target before being detected.[12] Bell Textron filed for a patent on 1/28/2021, # 17/161075 Active Aircraft Visual Cloaking System, that proposes using electroluminescent paint along with an active camera system to project and control a luminescent paint scheme to blend the aircraft exterior structure with the sky.

Possible technologies[edit]

Active camouflage may now develop using organic light-emitting diodes and other technologies which allow for images to be projected onto irregularly shaped surfaces. Using visual data from a camera, an object could perhaps be camouflaged well enough to avoid detection by the human eye and optical sensors when stationary. Camouflage is weakened by motion, but active camouflage could still make moving targets more difficult to see. However, active camouflage works best in one direction at a time, requiring knowledge of the relative positions of the observer and the concealed object.[1]

Illustration of principle of illusory transparency camouflage
An invisibility cloak using active camouflage by Susumu Tachi. Left: The cloth seen without a special device. Right: The same cloth seen through the half-mirror projector part of the Retro-Reflective Projection Technology

In 2003 researchers at the University of Tokyo under Susumu Tachi created a prototype active camouflage system using material impregnated with retroreflective glass beads. The viewer stands in front of the cloth viewing the cloth through a transparent glass plate. A video camera behind the cloth captures the background behind the cloth. A video projector projects this image on to the glass plate which is angled so that it acts as a partial mirror reflecting a small portion of the projected light onto the cloth. The retroreflectors in the cloth reflect the image back towards the glass plate which being only weakly reflecting allows most of the retroreflected light to pass through to be seen by the viewer. The system only works when seen from a certain angle.[13]

Phased-array optics would implement active camouflage, not by producing a two-dimensional image of background scenery on an object, but by computational holography to produce a three-dimensional hologram of background scenery on an object to be concealed. Unlike a two-dimensional image, the holographic image would appear to be the actual scenery behind the object independent of viewer distance or view angle.[14]

Military prototypes[edit]

Photographs of an armoured vehicle through an infra-red night sight, purportedly showing active camouflage panels in use
An armoured vehicle fitted with Adaptiv infrared side panels, switched off (left), and on to simulate a large car (right)[15]

In 2010, the Israeli company Eltics created an early prototype of a system of tiles for infrared camouflage of vehicles. In 2011, BAE Systems announced their Adaptiv infrared camouflage technology. It uses about 1000 hexagonal Peltier panels to cover the sides of a tank. The panels are rapidly heated and cooled to match either the temperature of the vehicle's surroundings, or one of the objects in the thermal cloaking system's "library" such as a truck, car or large rock.[16][15][17]

In fiction[edit]

Active camouflage technology, both visual and otherwise, is a commonly used plot device in science fiction stories. The Star Trek franchise incorporated the concept, and Star Trek: Voyager depicts humans using "bio-dampeners" to infiltrate a Borg Cube without the antagonists realizing they are there.[18] The eponymous antagonists in the Predator films also use active camouflage.[19] In many video games, such as the Halo series,[20][21][22] Deus Ex: Human Revolution,[23] and the Crysis series,[24] players can obtain and use cloaking devices.[24] In the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day, Bond's Aston Martin V12 Vanquish is fitted with an active camouflage system.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c McKee, Kent W.; Tack, David W. (2007). "Active Camouflage For Infantry Headwear Applications" (PDF). HumanSystems: iii. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ a b c "Midwater Squid, Abralia veranyi". Midwater Squid, Abralia veranyi (with photograph). Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 28 November 2011.
  3. ^ a b Sumner, Francis B. (May 1911). "The adjustment of flatfishes to various backgrounds: A study of adaptive color change". Journal of Experimental Zoology. 10 (4): 409–506. doi:10.1002/jez.1400100405.
  4. ^ a b c Wallin, Margareta (2002). Naturens palett | Hur djur och människor får färg [Nature's Palette | How animals, including humans, produce colors] (PDF) (in Swedish). Vol. 1. pp. 1–12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 June 2020. Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  5. ^ Young, R.E.; Roper, C.F. (1976). "Bioluminescent countershading in midwater animals: evidence from living squid". Science. 191 (4231): 1046–1048. Bibcode:1976Sci...191.1046Y. doi:10.1126/science.1251214. PMID 1251214.
  6. ^ Haddock, S. H. D.; et al. (2010). "Bioluminescence in the Sea". Annual Review of Marine Science. 2: 443–493. Bibcode:2010ARMS....2..443H. doi:10.1146/annurev-marine-120308-081028. PMID 21141672.
  7. ^ Forbes, Peter. Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. Yale, 2009.
  8. ^ Reid, Amanda (2016). Cephalopods of Australia and Sub-Antarctic Territories. CSIRO. p. 7. ISBN 978-1-486-30393-9. Not surprisingly, this aspect of cephalopod biology has become the subject of US military research with millions of dollars currently being poured into studies on cephalopod camouflage.
  9. ^ a b Ramachandran, V. S.; C. W. Tyler; R. L. Gregory; et al. (29 February 1996). "Letters to Nature". Rapid Adaptive Camouflage in Tropical Flounders. 379 (6568): 815–818. Bibcode:1996Natur.379..815R. doi:10.1038/379815a0. PMID 8587602. S2CID 4304531.
  10. ^ Bester, Cathleen. "Seaweed blenny". Ichthyology. Florida Museum of Natural History. Archived from the original on 20 September 2015. Retrieved 6 January 2015.
  11. ^ "Naval Museum of Quebec". Diffused Lighting and its use in the Chaleur Bay. Royal Canadian Navy. Archived from the original on 22 May 2013. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  12. ^ Bush, Vannevar; Conant, James; Harrison, George (1946). "Camouflage of Sea-Search Aircraft" (PDF). Visibility Studies and Some Applications in the Field of Camouflage. Office of Scientific Research and Development, National Defence Research Committee. pp. 225–240. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 23, 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  13. ^ "Light and Dark: The Invisible Man". Time magazine. 18 November 2003. Archived from the original on 18 November 2003. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  14. ^ Wowk, Brian (1996). "Phased Array Optics". In BC Crandall (ed.). Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance. MIT Press. pp. 147–160. ISBN 978-0-262-03237-7. Retrieved 18 February 2007.
  15. ^ a b "Adaptiv-A Cloak of Invisibility". BAE Systems. 2011. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  16. ^ Schechter, Erik (1 July 2013). "Whatever Happened to Counter-Infrared Camouflage?". Popular Mechanics. Retrieved 19 February 2017.
  17. ^ "BBC News Technology". Tanks test infrared invisibility cloak. BBC. 5 September 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  18. ^ Lasbury, Mark E. (24 August 2016). The realization of Star Trek technologies : the science, not fiction, behind brain implants, plasma shields, quantum computing, and more. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing. p. 39. ISBN 978-3-319-40912-2. OCLC 950954032. Retrieved 30 May 2021.
  19. ^ Robley, Les Paul (December 1987). "Predator: Special Visual Effects". Cinefantastique.
  20. ^ Halo 4: The Essential Visual Guide. Dorling Kindersley. 2013. p. 136. ISBN 978-1-4654-1159-4.
  21. ^ Radcliffe, Doug (2003). Halo: Combat Evolved, Sybex official strategies & secrets. Sybex. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-7821-4236-5.
  22. ^ Doug Walsh; Phillip Marcus; Rich Hunsinger; Sea Snipers (2010). Halo: Reach, Signature Series Guide. BradyGames. pp. 20, 253. ISBN 978-0744012323.
  23. ^ Eidos Montréal (23 August 2011). Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Mac OS X). Square Enix.
  24. ^ a b "Crysis 3: Adaptive Warfare". Crytek. Archived from the original on 13 August 2016. Retrieved 28 July 2016. CLOAK ENGAGED: Vanish in broad daylight with active camouflage.
  25. ^ "Technology in the James Bond Universe". Today's Engineer (January). 2006. Retrieved 14 December 2021.

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