DARPA’s newest toy lets human scale vertical glass wall, just like Spider-Man


During testing, an operator climbed 25 feet vertically on a glass surface using no climbing equipment other than a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles. The climber wore, but did not require, the use of a safety belay. (Courtesy of DARPA)

Defense Department scientists have figured out how to replicate Spider-Man’s superpower.

In an age of advanced weaponry, the Marvel hero still relies on his wall-scaling skills to elude his enemies.

So the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created a pair of paddles that could allow U.S. troops to do the same.

Using new DARPA technology, a 218-pound man carrying a 50-pound load climbed a 25-foot vertical glass wall without ropes or hooks.

The feat was a first for humans — though old hat for the gecko, whose sticky toes inspired the wall climbing devices — a product of DARPA’s Z-Man program. Z-Man looks to nature for inspiration in improving how warfighters navigate urban environments in combat.

“Historically, gaining the high ground has always been an operational advantage for warfighters, but the climbing instruments on which they’re frequently forced to rely — tools such as ropes and ladders — have not advanced significantly for millennia,” according to a DARPA news release.

“Not only can the use of such tools be overt and labor intensive, they also only allow for sequential climbing whereby the first climber often takes on the highest risk.”

“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,” said Matt Goodman, the DARPA program manager for Z-Man.

“Like many of the capabilities that the Department of Defense pursues, we saw with vertical climbing that nature 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.”

A gecko can hang its entire body with one sticky toe thanks to tiny bristles that help the animal cling to any surface, regardless of what that surface is made of.

Using nature’s principles, scientists at the Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., set to work designing an adhesive that would work for humans. The average man weighs about 375 times as much as a gecko. To prevent the climber from falling off when lifting paddles to climb further, they push both up and away from the climbing surface.

The first successful climb was in 2012, but tests are ongoing. The man-made reversible adhesives DARPA created using nanotechnology could also have biomedical, industrial and consumer applications.

Peter Parker, look out.

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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