DARPA’s Z-Man Program Allows First Human Ever to Climb Like a Gecko
Employing their gecko inspired technology, DARPA has successfully demonstrated a 218 pound man’s ability to climb a vertical glass surface carrying an additional 50 pound load using nothing more than a set of hand held paddles. From DARPA:
A gecko is able to climb on glass by using physical bond interactions—specifically van der Waals intermolecular forces—between the spatulae and a surface to adhere reversibly, resulting in easy attachment and removal of the gecko’s toes from the surface. The van der Waals mechanism implied that it is the size and shape of the spatulae tips that affect adhesive performance, not specific surface chemistry. This suggested that there were design principles and physical models derived from nature that might enable scientists to fabricate an adhesive inspired by gecko toes.
Humans, of course, have much more weight to carry than a gecko. One of the initial challenges in developing a device to support human climbing was the issue of scaling: a typical Tokay gecko weighs 200 grams, while an average human male weighs 75 kilograms. To enable dynamic climbing like a gecko at this larger scale required that the engineers create climbing paddles capable of balancing sufficient adhesive forces in both the shear (parallel to the vertical surface) and normal (perpendicular to the vertical surface) directions. That feature is necessary for a climber to remain adhered on a surface without falling off while in the act of attaching and detaching the paddles with each movement.
The Draper Laboratory team was also challenged to create novel micro- and nanofabrication technologies to produce the high-aspect-ratio microstructures found in the gecko toe. In the process of achieving that capability, the Z-Man performers transformed the fundamental design and development of reversible adhesives for potential biomedical, industrial, and consumer applications.
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