January 2, 2014
Future Space Missions May Utilize Gecko-Inspired Robotics
[ Watch the video: Abigaille-III Climbing Robot ]
[ Watch the video: Wall-Climbing Robot Demonstration ]
Future space missions could utilize a new technology that draws inspiration from the stickiness found on gecko feet. Researchers, using this natural wonder, have developed a wall-climbing robot that may one day aid astronauts in outer space.
The ESA, along with Simon Fraser University researchers in Canada, tested a dry adhesive in a temperate space environment, finding that the adhesive maintained its stickiness throughout the test.
The test was conducted by Michael Henrey, from SFU's School of Engineering Science, in ESA’s Electrical Materials and Process Lab in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, with support also from ESA’s Automation and Robotics Lab. During the test, the engineers demonstrated the effectiveness of the adhesives on their 'Abigaille' crawling robots.
Gecko’s feet have little hairs that are 100-200 nanometers across, or about the size of individual bacteria. The hair ends interact with a surface, causing a suction effect.
“This approach is an example of ‘biomimicry’, taking engineering solutions from the natural world,” said Henrey. “We’ve borrowed techniques from the microelectronics industry to make our own footpad terminators. Technical limitations mean these are around 100 times larger than a gecko’s hairs, but they are sufficient to support our robot’s weight.”
“The reason we’re interested in dry adhesives is that other adhesive methods wouldn’t suit the space environment,” Henrey added.
Henrey explained that pressure-sensitive adhesives such as duct tape and Scotch tape tend to collect dust and lose their stickiness over time. Also, such adhesives give off fumes in vacuum conditions, which Henrey notes "is a big no-no because it might affect delicate spacecraft systems."
Additionally, "Velcro requires a mating surface, and broken hooks could contaminate the robot’s working environment. Magnets can’t stick to composites, for example, and magnetic fields might affect sensitive instruments,” explained Henrey in a statement.
“It’s very expensive to upgrade hardware once it is up in space so the idea would be to fly a more general robot in the first place. This could then be adapted through software upgrades for different tasks that weren’t anticipated at the start of the project,” he said.
“Our Abigaille climbing robot is therefore quite dexterous, with six legs each having four degrees of freedom, so it should be handle [sic] environments that a wheeled robot could not. For example, it can transition from the vertical to horizontal, which might be useful for going around a satellite or overcoming obstacles on the way.”
At this point, the robot is limited to smooth man made surfaces, but the technology is continually being improved and may someday be used in outer space applications.