What is more powerful than suction cup and even a vacuum pump, but was not invented by humans?
Answer: a gecko’s foot. NASA has decided to copy the lizard’s incredible gripping technology, which relies on electrostatic attractions, in its Gecko Gripper robot. This is not coming from an internet troll trying to sell car insurance. The space agency partnered with OnRobot, which specializes in finger-like robotic grippers, to create a device that can (so far) lift 14 pounds. The radiation-resistant pads could literally mean a huge step forward for getting around in space.
“Moving around in microgravity is more of a climbing problem than a walking problem,” said Aaron Parness, who had overseen the robotic climbers and grippers group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.
If you’ve ever seen a spacewalk video, then you know that astronauts are not just walking outside to adjust something on the ISS. They have to climb and somehow make their bodies conform to the shape of whatever they are climbing if they expect to not float away into the cosmic void. Geckos’ feet automatically conform to whatever they’re climbing, which explains how you can find one hanging out on the ceiling with no problem at all. Each toe pad has a million ultrathin hairs with hundreds of even thinner nanohairs.
With hairs too small for the naked eye to see, a gecko creates a surprising amount of surface area that its feet will conform to with hardly any pressure. Replicating that was not nearly as easy for humans as crawling at weird angles may be for this lizard.
The Gecko Gripper is still being upgraded, but it could possibly challenge the reptile it was modeled after. Its ultrasonic sensor finds the target, and the weight of that target is figured out by a load sensor, which is beyond convenient for picking up and sticking to objects on Earth and in space. It can also switch adhesion on and off autonomously using the same tech that a gecko’s foot evolved over millions of years. Like gecko nanohairs, it has tiny fibers that stick out an an angle, so only moving in the right direction will allow them to grip.
Pulling in the opposite direction will release that grip. “If nature hadn’t come up with this, I don’t think anyone would have ever thought of it,” said Gareth Meirion-Griffith, current manager of the JPL climbers and grippers group, of this creation. The Gecko Gripper is also much more convenient than the vacuum-powered pump it will eventually replace in microgravity.
It’s obvious that things crawling (or growing) on the planet we live on still have much to teach us about how we can advance technology.