Pentagon Funds Spider-Man Tech for Real-Life Wall Crawlers

Researchers create palm-sized device that could turn troops into wall-crawlers.

February 05, 2010, 3:16 PM

Feb. 6, 2010— -- A team of chemical engineers at Cornell have created a palm-sized device that could one day turn troops into human wall crawlers, using an adhesive bond inspired by beetles.

No surprise that Darpa, the Pentagon agency often inspired by sci-fi, is behind this one. They've been funding superhero efforts for years, from Superman X-Ray vision to human flight via cannonball (well, sorta).

Spider-Man capabilities have been a top priority too, in hopes that troops might one day scale verticals "without the need for rope or ladder."

So far, wall-climbing projects have yielded scampering robots, but haven't mimicked the results in humans.

In 2006, Stanford researchers took inspiration from geckos to create a robot that clambered along surfaces using synthetic setae, the tiny, sticky hairs that give geckos their climbing skills. And last year, a research team at SRI International devised bots that stuck to walls using electrostatic charges.

Meanwhile, Darpa was also funding research into Cornell's water-based adhesion device, which is inspired by the Floridian leaf beetle that can adhere to leaves with power 100 times stronger than its own body weight. The gadget consists of a three-layered plate powered by a common 9-volt battery.

The electric field pumps water through each layer, causing droplets to pop through tiny holes in the top layer. Each water droplet yields minimal force, but when thousands of them work together, they create enough surface tension for a square-inch device to hold up more than 15 pounds. The smaller the device, and the more holes, the stronger the adhesion forces.

Once the researchers master the pump mechanism to make adhesive forces even stronger, they want to turn humans into Spider-Man. Paul Steen, lead researcher on the project, envisions shoes or gloves that can bear loads while they stick to and release from walls.

Estimates that extrapolate from the research paper conclude that a 3-by-5-inch plate on the sole of a shoe could support a fully grown 225-pound man.

Spider-Man Device Can Handle Water

Unlike gecko-inspired wall walkers, which couldn't scale slippery surfaces, the device can handle water and adhere to "wood, brick, linoleum, plastics, metals and other surfaces of various roughness."

It also offers instant release, by reversing the electrical charge, so that a load (or a person) can stick and release easily.

Because of their massive surface tension, the gadgets might also come in handy to blow stuff up. Steen says the ability to pack millions of holes into a very small space, creating mega-electric force, means that a credit card-sized device could bust open a door or blow through a rock fissure, using no more power than that of a standard battery.

And as if human Spider-People with palm-sized explosives isn't cool enough, Steen's ultimate vision is to use the device to create real-life transformers: Moving the water droplets around would yield instantly morphing objects:

Further, imagine control with a precision that enables grab-release waves to be propagated along an active joint between two surfaces, one flexible and the other rigid, say. Then, zipping and unzipping of adhesive bonds against the flexible component opens the possibility of reconfiguring (morphing) objects to take different geometric shapes, all in real time.

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