DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has developed new paddles that allow users to climb vertical walls like Spider-man. For the first time in history, a fully-grown person climbed a glass wall more than two stories in the air.
The Z-man program aimed at designing a new tool for soldiers to use when climbing walls. Traditionally, fighters in wartime have had to rely on ladders and ropes to overcome vertical surfaces. These are both noisy and bulky, making it difficult for warriors to climb quietly when needed.
“The gecko is one of the champion climbers in the Animal Kingdom, so it was natural for DARPA to look to it for inspiration in overcoming some of the maneuver challenges that U.S. forces face in urban environments,” Goodman said.
This challenge was one many species had already faced in the wild. Geckos, able to climb vertical surfaces, were an inspiration to the inventors.
“[N]ature had long since evolved the means to efficiently achieve it. The challenge to our performer team was to understand the biology and physics in play when geckos climb and then reverse-engineer those dynamics into an artificial system for use by humans,” Matt Goodman, DARPA program manager for the Z-Man program, told the press.
The lizard uses microscopic tendrils, called setae, that end with flat spatulae. This dual structure provides the creature with an extremely large surface area coming into contact with whatever it touches. This allows van der Waals forces, a magnetic attraction between atoms, to hold the lizard in place. This same technique is used for the paddles.
Draper Laboratory, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts assisted the military technology developers in creating the devices. The business developed the unique microstructure material needed to make the design work.
The demonstration climb involved a climber weighing 218 pounds, in addition to a 50-pound load in one trial. He ascended and descended the vertical glass surface, using nothing but a pair of the paddles.
Warfare constantly advances in technology and strategies, but ropes and ladders – still needed to scale walls – have not significantly changed in thousands of years.
“‘Geckskin’ is one output of the Z-Man program. It is a synthetically-fabricated reversible adhesive inspired by the gecko’s ability to climb surfaces of various materials and roughness, including smooth surfaces like glass,” DARPA officials wrote on the Z-man Web site.
Advances in this bio-inpspired technology could have benefits beyond the battlefield. Materials similar to the the structure in the pad could be used as temporary adhesives for bandages, industrial and commercial products.