DARPA’s Z-Man program turns humans into gecko-like climbers

Credit: Wiki Commons

Geckos can do so much more than save you money on your car insurance. They are agile little creatures that can easily climb just about anything, including objects made of smooth surfaces like glass. Taking a cue from nature, DARPA thought it might be cool if humans could do the same thing and initiated the Z-Man program, which looked at the gecko toe structure and mimicked that on their own climbing devices. And the results are astounding.

Geckos toes are fascinating little things. They have many microscopic little stalks, called setae, on each toe. At the end of these setae are tiny tips called spatulae that come into contact with whatever the creatures are climbing. These spatulae adhere and release from surfaces due to something called van der Waals intermolecular forces. Basically this means that the spatulae are sized and shaped in a way that allows them to do this. It also allows geckos to support their entire body weight with just one toe.

Obviously, DARPA thought creating something similar for humans might come in handy in urban environments (for example, climbing a skyscraper like Tom Cruise did in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). So they created their own device with setae and spatulae-like parts, scaling them up to safely support a human’s weight. They also wanted the resulting climbing paddles to work in multiple directions for climbing, whether it be vertical or horizontal.

DARPA apparently did something right, because they recently demonstrated these climbing paddles with a 218-pound man, who climbed up and down 25 feet of glass, all while carrying an additional 50-pounds. Devices like this will eliminate the need for bulkier, heavier and less stable climbing apparatus, thereby making life for soldiers in the field a little easier.

This isn’t the first time the gecko has inspired new technology. Not only has someone created a climbing robot that can climb like a gecko, but a new adhesive takes its cue from the gecko’s unique abilities, too.


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