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Wall-scaling gecko robotic may mend satellites and easy skyscrapers


See how the Abigaille III can climb partitions the usage of ‘dry adhesive’U4ME


Gecko-inspired robots could be crawling around a space station ceiling one day soon, after trials using dry glue and footpads fitted with thousands of tiny barbs similar to the lizard’s hairs have proven successful in space-like conditions. 

Abigaille, the wall-scaling robot developed by the European Space Agency and electrical engineers Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Canada, might not look like the most elegant of machines as she clambers aloft, nor the fastest. But she’s got more in common with Spider-Man than the rest of us. Although she needs a smooth surface to work properly for now, the recent experiments at the ESA’s Electrical Materials and Process Lab in the Netherlands using a depth-sensing indentation instrument have shown that the dry adhesive Abigaille uses can withstand space temperatures and vacuum conditions. It meant that with her six legs, each with four degrees of freedom of movement, Abigaille could effectively crawl sideways as well as vertically in the conditions without fear of falling.

Geckos adhere to surfaces using their setae — bristle-like structures that are around 100 to 200 nanometres wide and are thought to engage van der Waals forces to stick to both wet and dry surfaces. The enviable trait has been the subject of several other biomimickry trials. In 2007 a team from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Akron published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing its synthetic “gecko tape”, a polymer surface covered in carbon nanotube hairs. The reusable prototype could stick and unstick on wet and dry surfaces, including Teflon, one of the few surfaces the lizard has trouble with. The patch was four times stickier than a real lizard foot. Then came the ten-times stronger dry gecko glue developed by the University of Dayton, the University of Akron and others in 2008. It was claimed 2.5cm of the glue could stick an 100kg man to a vertical surface. 

With Abigaille, the team is not looking to be the strongest, biggest and best just yet. It is working on creating an autonomous robot with the agility to scramble over satellites and space stations, to survive in extreme conditions and keep on working and mending machinery when necessary.

“We’ve borrowed techniques from the microelectronics industry to make our own footpad terminators,” explained Michael Henrey of Simon Fraser University in an ESA press release. “Technical limitations mean these are around 100 times larger than a gecko’s hairs, but they are sufficient to support our robot’s weight.”

Dry glues like the one the team used, which retain stickiness in all conditions, have become popular for their universal applications. Henrey explains that in space ordinary tape, such as scotch or duct, would collect dust and give off fumes in vacuum conditions. “Velcro requires a mating surface, and broken hooks could contaminate the robot’s working environment. Magnets can’t stick to composites, for example, and magnetic fields might affect sensitive instruments.” 

Details of the dry adhesive have not yet been released, but an upcoming article in Bionic Engineering  will reveal all. A previous version released in 2011 by the same group at SFU used polydimethylsiloxane for the dry glue, and was trialled on a robot that could move across wall corners at speeds of 3.4cm/s, using sensors to avoid obstacles. 

The results of this latest study, says Henrey, certainly suggest “deployment in space might one day be possible”. This type of robot, the team has suggested, could be useful in planteray exploration, satellite repairs, cleaning skyscrapers or search and rescue operations.


If gecko-like robots aren’t your thing, how about using similar technology to develop a Spidey-suit? Darpa’s Z-Man program “aims to develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable warfighters to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials, while carrying a full combat load, and without the use of ropes or ladders”. It led to the 2012 announcement of a Geckskin adhesive that can hold 300kg onto a flat surface.