January 02, 2014
Climbing robots that mimic the stickiness of gecko lizard feet could work in space as well as on Earth, ESA has shown, raising the prospect of hull-crawling automatons tending future spacecraft.
Robots crawling across spacecraft surfaces are a common sight in science fiction films from Silent Running to Wall-E. But, in reality, how might they stick in place while still remaining mobile?
Researchers from ESA and Simon Fraser University in Canada subjected gecko-inspired ‘dry adhesive’ materials to space vacuum and temperatures, finding the stickiness is retained throughout.
Engineers from the University’s School of Engineering Science have demonstrated such adhesives with a family of ‘Abigaille’ crawling robots.
“This approach is an example of ‘biomimicry’, taking engineering solutions from the natural world,” explained Michael Henrey of Simon Fraser University.
A gecko’s feet are sticky due to a bunch of little hairs with ends just 100–200 nanometres across – around the scale of individual bacteria. This is sufficiently tiny that atomic interactions between the ends of the hairs and the surface come into play.
image credit: ESA