If you’ve ever watched with envy as Spider-Man or Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scale structures with ease, then this could be your lucky day. According to the MIT Technology Review, a team from Stanford University have created a gecko-inspired human climbing system that allowed a grad student to scale a glass wall just using two hand-sized sticky pads.
The Spider-Man wannabe was mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes. Hawkes, along with a team of engineers from Mark Cutkosky’s Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Lab, has been researching controllable, reusable adhesive materials that can form a strong bond with smooth surfaces — like a gecko! Previous gecko-inspired adhesives have suffered setbacks as the larger the ‘footprint’ the less effective the adhesive becomes. However, the Stanford team have developed a device that shares large loads very evenly across every patch of the adhesive, creating sufficient adhesion to allow a person to climb a glass wall. “It’s a lot of fun, but also a little weird, because it doesn’t feel like you should be gripping glass,” Hawkes said. “You keep expecting to slip off, and when you don’t, it surprises you. It’s pretty exhilarating.”
Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shaped polymer structures, each 100 micrometers long — about the width of a human hair. “When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.” Like Tom Cruise’s gloves in Misson: Impossible, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off: simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason adds.
Mark Cutkosky notes, “Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays. We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”
Or you could just climb buildings for fun!