The system was attached to a graduate student, who was then attached to a glass wall and instructed to move vertically "using two hand-sized sticky pads," the MIT publication said.
"The climbing speed was limited by the posture of the climber, not by the adhesion system (which can attach and detach in less than a second), so further work optimizing the climbing device for human biomechanics is warranted," the researchers wrote.
The researchers, according to the MIT report, believe that, once perfected, their adhesives could be used for "manufacturing equipment, making grippers for manipulating huge solar panels, displays, and other objects without the need for suction power or chemical glues." NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has even tapped the team to create an adhesive that could be used by robots.
“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in years,” biomechanist Kellar Autumn, who was not involved with the study,told the Science magazine. “This has been a real dream of mine.”
Geckos run up walls and scurry across ceilings with the help of tiny rows of hairs on their feet. The hairs, known as setae, generate a multitude of weak attractions between molecules on the two surfaces that add up to a secure foothold.
Unlike most man-made adhesive tapes, the MIT Technology Review notes, gecko toes release easily and stick again, which explains why researchers of all stripes have long been obsessed with recreating the animal's foot structure. In 2011, researchers from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby developed a "tank-like" robot capable of scaling smooth walls, according to Engadget.com.
"Geckos, spiders and small animals" are also the inspiration for the U.S Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Z-Man program,
according to the group's Web site.
The program's goal is to "develop biologically inspired climbing aids to enable warfighters to scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials, while carrying a full combat load, and without the use of ropes or ladders." This summer, the program demonstrated gecko-inspired paddles that allowed a 208-pound climber to scale a 25-foot glass wall with no other climbing equipment.
So how does the Stanford team's system work? Well, it's complicated.
"To make the climbing system," according to MIT, "the researchers started with an existing adhesive based on molded microwedges made from a polymer material called PDMS. They attached tiles of this material to a flat, hexagonal, hand-sized gripper. Each gripper was backed with a spring that distributed weight across the pad, and absorbed some of the force involved in climbing.
"To make climbing easier, the researchers also linked the grippers to platform for a person’s feet, thereby transferring the work of climbing to the legs."
The potential applications of the research may extend into space: According to Science, "the team is now working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to create adhesive-equipped robots that can catch space junk such as defunct satellites."