While it may not seem like it, the fashion world and technology have a lot in common. Just when we get used to the idea of a trend being latest and greatest, it’s quickly replaced by something else. In the wise words of Heidi Klum, supermodel and host of the hit fashion design series “Project Runway,” “One minute you’re in, and the next you’re out!”
Though camouflage has long been a staple in the fashion world, it seems that a technological breakthrough is taking it to the next level in terms of functionality. According to researchers, as cool as invisibility cloaks are, they’re so last season and out of style thanks “illusion coatings,” which conceal objects by making them appear as something else.
Illusion coatings could be used to help troops or spies protect antennas and sensors from being detected by remote inspection while still allowing the devices to gather data from the outside world, the researchers added.
Once thought of as purely a figment of a science fiction aficionado’s imagination, invisibility cloaks (like the ones seen in “Star Trek” and “Harry Potter”) operate by guiding and smoothing light waves around objects. The waves then ripple along their original paths as if an object wasn’t there to block them. Cloaking devices that are effective against other kinds of waves are also a possibility. The acoustic waves used in sonar are an example.
However, the problem with invisibility cloaks is they isolate the person or object they enclose, meaning “the act of cloaking would prevent an enclosed antenna for sensor from communicating with the outside world,” lead study author and electrical engineer at Pennsylvania State Zhi Hao Jiang said in a statement.
To solve this problem, scientists have created illusion coatings, which can be described as lightweight, flexible materials that allow whatever they cover to appear as something else. The illusion coatings are similar to camouflage, which is designed to be visually disruptive by confusing the brain and allowing one to disguise themselves from whoever is looking in their direction.
The scientists began with thin sheets of composite material made of glass fibers and Teflon. These were then covered with patterns of copper stripes, which worked with the composite material to disperse radio waves in a very precise and intentional way. The stripes are incredibly thin at 35 microns deeps and roughly 300 to 500 microns wide — for comparison, the average width of a human hair is 100 microns.
Next, the scientists surrounded whatever object they wanted cloaked with either an air or foam separator. Finally, the coating was applied. The scientists were able to make the copper antenna or sensor appear as silicon or Teflon when scanned by radio waves. They were also able to make a Teflon cylinder appear as a metal object.
Illusion coatings could also be used to improve telecommunications by channeling radio signals. For now, these illusion coatings only work for radio frequencies; however, scientists are exploring ones that work against infrared and visible wavelengths of light.