Gecko-like grip soon to be within reach of humans

Engineers at Stanford University have developed adhesive materials that mimic a gecko’s gripping power.

Image: Eric Eason

Elliot Hawkes could very easily be the human alias for a superhero. Elliot Hawkes by day, Gecko Man by night. However, Hawkes doesn’t possess powers like otherworldly strength or the ability to fly. No, Hawkes is a mechanical engineering student at Stanford University in California, who has designed a handheld pad inspired by Spiderman.

Hawkes, along with a group of engineers are developing adhesive materials based on a gecko’s natural ability to climb walls. “These materials need to create a strong bond with a smooth surface able to support maximum weight through even distribution that can easily be released with minimal energy loss,” Hawkes said.

The gecko glove, as they call it, takes the shape of a flat pad attached to the palm of the hand.  Eric Eason a graduate student in applied physics and researcher on the project, explains that each pad consists of 24 adhesive tiles. The tiles are saw-toothed shaped polymer structures of 100 micrometers. When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it's not sticky, but when the load is applied, the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, creating an adhesive force.

The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, where  Easons' research was published, explains that the pads are connected to special “degressive” springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten and release grip.

According to Mark Cutkowsky who was part of the research team, the device could be used in the aerospace and robotics industry. Robots could easily lift and install glass panels with care and then release them.

Hawkes adds: "It's a lot of fun, but also a little weird because it doesn't feel like you should be gripping glass and you keep expecting to slip off, and when you don't, it surprises you. It's pretty exhilarating."