Nature is amazing.
All the time, amazing discoveries are being made about the natural world and how living things are able to do incredible things in order to survive and thrive.
And while the sticky foot of the gecko is not a new discovery, it has recently been put to some useful applications in the world of science and technology.
Geckos are small lizards common to warm climates throughout the world. Many species of gecko are well-known for having specialized pads on their feet that allow them to walk vertically, or even upside-down along many surfaces.
In the wild, geckos use this ability to scamper up trees, large rocks and other such surfaces in pursuit of insects, the staple and favourite food of most geckos.
But, this ability has also helped them adapt to life in areas populated by humans.
In urban areas, geckos often live as welcome squatters or even as valuable pets for their wall-crawling and insect-hunting abilities.
Insects are pests, and (as anyone who has ever wielded a fly-swatter knows,) can hide in places difficult to reach (like the ceiling), so a gecko is often a practical solution to the insect infestation problem in a home.
Now, the European Space Agency (ESA), working with researchers from Canada, have developed a robot designed to crawl across the hulls of spacecraft inspired by the foot of the gecko.
Instead of hunting insects, the robot was designed to maintain the outside of spaceships in flight in the future.
The robot, which has been nicknamed Abigaille, has its own special pads on its feet that were inspire by geckoes.
Mike Henrey, the research team’s leader, calls the process of taking engineering solutions from the natural world ‘biomimicry’ and said Abigaille is a perfect example of this. He said the robot is able to climb walls and work upside down, just like geckos, because robot’s feet are covered with dry micro-fibres modeled after the feet of geckos.
Henrey said that ESA is interested in dry adhesives because other adhesives, like sticky tape, Velcro and magnets would not be suitable.
Tape loses its adhesive properties over time, Velcro requires two surfaces to hook together and magnets will not stick to composite parts of spacecraft.
Having feet in place of wheels or other mobility methods is also an advantage for Abigaille.
Henrey said that the climbing robot is more dexterous than a wheeled robot and its six legs each have four degrees of freedom. This means it could work in more varied environments.
Abigaille has yet to be thoroughly tested, but initial research is promising showing that its adhesive abilities work well in simulated zero-gravity environments.
While the ‘gecko-bot’ wall-crawling abilities are limited to smooth, man-made surfaces for now, research is continuing to improve this performance.