NASA engineers are developing a new “gecko-gripper” technology that would allow robots on the International Space Station to cling to walls with ease, just like tiny lizards.
Inspired by one of Mother Nature’s most ingenious inventions, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are developing a new “gecko-gripper” technology that would allow robots on the International Space Station to cling to walls with ease, just like tiny lizards.
Geckos’ feet are not sticky like gum or tape. Rather, millions of fine hairs on the bottom of their feet are the secret to their impressive ability. These hairs are incredibly tiny, so molecular-level forces come into play; the hairs also dramatically increase the surface area of the gecko’s feet, thereby increasing the amount of area over which these molecular-level interactions can play out.
Because electrons orbiting the nuclei of atoms are not evenly spaced, a slight electrical field is created, giving each molecule a positively-charged and negatively-charged side (this is known as the van der Waals force).
When the tiny gecko hairs bend, the positively-charged side attracts the negatively-charged part of its neighbor, resulting in “stickiness.”
Incredibly, this “stickiness” persists even under extreme temperature, pressure, and radiation conditions, making it ideal for incorporating into technology that will be used in space.
Engineers are already experimenting with a sticky-footed robot, the Lemur 3 climbing robot, in simulated microgravity environments. The Lemur 3 robot is designed to help out around the International Space Station, conducting inspections and making repairs on the exterior.
More recently, hand-operated “astronaut anchors” using gecko-gripper technology are in the works. These would allow astronauts to attach clipboards, pictures, and other handheld items to the interior walls of the station, by attaching the object to the mounting post of the anchor by pushing together the two components of the anchor.