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Gecko-inspired robot climbs walls

Researchers have developed a tank-like robot that has the ability to scale smooth walls, opening up a series of applications ranging from inspecting pipes, buildings, aircraft and nuclear power plants to deployment in search and rescue operations.

Researchers have built a tank-like robot that can climb smooth walls with the ease of a gecko scurrying about in the middle of the night. In fact, the robot was inspired by a scientific explanation for what makes gecko feet so sticky.

The robot could find use in applications ranging from inspections of pipes, buildings, and nuclear power plants to search and rescue missions.

Its tank-like feet are inspired from the millions of tiny, hair-like toe pads on gecko feet that allow the lizards to scurry up trees, walls, and across ceilings without falling down. 

Previous research explained that tiny toe pads accomplish this thanks to what are known as van der Waals forces, very weak attractive forces between molecules.

The robot team, led by Jeff Krahn at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, recreated these dry but sticky toe pads in the lab using the material polydimethysiloxane (PDMS). The end of each hair-like pad contains a mushroom cap shape that is 17 micrometers wide and 10 micrometers high.

"While van der Waals forces are considered to be relatively weak, the thin, flexible overhang provided by the mushroom cap ensures that the area of contact between the robot and the surface is maximized," Krahn explained in a news release

By using the gecko-like pads on the robot, the researchers are able to climb even smooth surfaces such as glass or plastic, materials that are a consistent challenge for robots that use magnets, suction cups, spines and claws to climb.

The tank-like robot weighs in at 240 grams and can transfer from a flat surface to a wall over inside and outside corners. It has a top speed of 3.4 centimeters per second.

The robot goes by the name Timeless Belt Climbing Platform (TBCP-II). It is outfitted with sensors that allow it to detect its surroundings and alter its course to navigate obstacles, though Krahn and his team are still improving the control strategy to make it fully autonomous.

To see the robot climb the wall, be sure to check out the video at the top of this post. Krahn and colleagues describe the robot today in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

More on geckoes and robots:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.


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