Lizard Feet Teach American Soldiers How to Climb Walls

Defense scientists are copying the unique feet of the gecko, which can support significant weight on any vertical surface, including glass.

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Screenshot of image showing man climbing a vertical, glass wall using gecko-inspired pads. The harness is for security only.
Screenshot of image showing man climbing a vertical, glass wall using gecko-inspired pads. The harness is for security only.

The U.S. military is developing special climbing gloves based on the feet of a lizard known as the gecko, the Daily Mail reports. The gloves would enable soldiers to climb vertical walls.

"The gecko is one of the champion climbers in the animal kingdom, so it was natural for [us] to look to it for inspiration in overcoming some of the maneuver challenges that U.S. forces face in urban environments," the Daily Mail cited Dr. Matt Goodman, program manager for the project at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as saying. 

Gecko toe pads adhere to just about any surface, including glass, due to their unique structure. Each toe has ridges covered with arrays of stiff bristles, known as setae, and each seta branches into hundreds of tiny endings that touch the surface and engage in an intermolecular exchange known as Van der Waals forces.

The approximately 6.5 million setae on a 50-gram gecko generate enough force to support the weight of two people. They detach within milliseconds, stick to nearly every material and do not adhere to each other.

The design principles and physical models derived from the gecko are helping scientists design a specialized cloth which they call Geckskin. Gloves covered with the cloth will enable the wearer to cling to surfaces the same way that the gecko's feet do.

"The challenge to our 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," Goodman said.

Darpa recently demonstrated the latest iteration of its Geckskin by having a 218-pound researcher (saddled with 50 pounds of recording gear) scale a 25-foot tall glass wall.

It says the project could give it the upper hand in battle. "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 – such as ropes and ladders – have not advanced significantly for millennia," Goodman said.

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