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Scientists Develop Spider-Man Suit Project after Being Inspired by… Geckos?

gecko-suitIt seems that scientists are taking everyone’s fantasy of becoming a superhero and making it a reality! Thanks to DARPA  and Stanford University, aspiring superheroes may soon be able to climb vertical walls just like Spider-Man!

The Guardian is reporting that researchers have created hand-sized silicone pads covered with tiny ridges that are capable of sticking to smooth surfaces. The pads feature rows of microscopic slanting wedges that temporarily bond to the surface of the glass when weight is applied. This allowed researcher Elliot Hawkes, a biomimetics student at Stanford, to climb a vertical glass wall! Check out the video of the Spidey-tech in action!

The suit was developed as part of the DARPA Z Man project – aimed at helping soldiers scale buildings and other obstacles more easily. Engineers are now looking to expand on their scaling gear and hopefully improve the technology to allow climbers to move faster and more smoothly. It could eventually lead to gloves similar to those used by Tom Cruise’s character in the film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai!

What’s interesting about this research is that the engineers weren’t looking at spiders for inspiration—geckos inspired them! That’s right, the sticky pads on geckos’ toes are actually made up of tiny bristles. Weak electrical interactions between the molecules in these bristles and the surface they are walking on provide grip that allows geckos to even climb upside down.

Professor Mark Cutkosky, a biomimetic engineer at Stanford University who led the research, said this about why spiders aren’t the best option for allowing humans to scale buildings: “Unfortunately ‘spider suits’ ignore some basic ergonomic issues: People have much greater strength in their legs than in their arms. Therefore, we think [we need] a system where the hands are used to gently attach and detach the adhesive tiles. A system of cables and links transfers the load to the feet.”

The gear still needs some testing and some bugs to work out. Right now, it only works well under ideal conditions—flat, smooth surfaces without curves or unexpected blemishes along the way. But the potential for this kind of technology may be out of this world.

The research team believes their suit could find other uses beyond climbing and are also working with Nasa to develop ways to help catch and hold space debris. According to Cutkosky, “Controllable dry adhesives are one of very few technologies that will work in space – they don’t require suction, they work at low temperatures and they don’t require external power.” So, it sounds like we might actually have a Spider-Man in space in the near future!

It’s really cool to see the lines between science fiction and science reality begin to blur, thanks to the ingenuity of today’s engineers. We’ve shown you lots of other examples of researchers bringing superheroes to life, like the real Baymax inflatable robot at the Carnegie Mellon Robotic Institute, or the 3D printed costumes that you can make for Halloween.

It just goes to show you what science and technology can do in today’s world. Now, go out and save the world!

photo credit: Handout via TheGuardian.com

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