Scientists working at Simon Frasor University have created a robot "gecko" that is capable of climbing walls the same way as its reptilian counterparts, according to a report by the Vancouver Sun.
Though it borrows its technology from nature, the robot runs on tracks and actually looks more like a small tank than it does a lizard. The device could soon be used to perform all kinds of jobs that are perilous for people, such as inspecting nuclear power plants, cleaning skyscraper windows or performing search-and-rescue missions in collapsed buildings.
The robot performs its gravity-defying task by utilizing a clingy silicone compound that has been formed into tiny bumps shaped like mushroom caps. It works thanks to a little known chemical force called the Van der Waals force, the weak force that attracts molecules or the components of molecules. The force accounts for molecular attraction not caused by a covalent bond or the electrostatic interaction of ions.
In nature, geckos also take advantage of this force when they climb walls.
"The adhesive pads on geckos follow this same principle by utilizing a large number of fibers, each with a very small tip. The more fibers a gecko has in contact, the greater attachment force it has on a surface," said Jeff Krahn, one of the researchers working on the gecko-like bot.
In theory, a gecko's foot, or any other material operating under the Van der Waals force, should adhere as easily to the surface of the International Space Station as to a living room wall. So robot geckos could also someday become invaluable tools for astronauts living in space.
Another advantage of the technology is that it doesn't leave behind any kind of sticky residue, which is a necessary byproduct of other forms of adhesive like glue or tape. It is therefore ideal for tasks such as window-cleaning.
So far the 240-gram robot prototype isn't as versatile as a living gecko, as it is only capable of sticking to glass or whiteboard-like surfaces (geckos, on the other hand, can climb on almost any surface, even rough ones like concrete or tree trunks).
"We unfortunately haven't as of yet calculated a cost for achieving a practical gecko robot as we are still in the prototyping stage," said Krahn.
Nonetheless, the prototype is already climbing up and over corners and onto walls at up to 3.4 centimeters a second, and it has been equipped with a battery and computer brain to make it more autonomous. Another research team at Stanford University is busy building a robot that has feet rather than tracks, which will help it to function more like a real gecko, capable of climbing a wider variety of uneven surfaces.
Before long, robot geckos might become a commonplace sight, scurrying about on the outside of your office windows, cleaning high ceilings or maybe pruning tall trees.