Emerging Technology

Move over Spider-Man, Z-Man can climb walls, too

DARPA Z-Man gecko

It apparently is a first—a 218-pound man climbing up a vertical glass wall without ropes or hooks but only with a pair of paddles on his hands.

The idea of climbing up the side of glass buildings likely makes people think of Spider-Man, but the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency compares the feat to that of a gecko, whose toes inspired the technology.

DARPA Z-Man climbing

DARPA created its Z-Man program to find biologically inspired ways to allow warfighters to scale buildings in tight urban settings and do it while carrying a combat load but without ropes or ladders. That led to the paddles that mimic the toes of geckos with a polymer microstructure technology developed for DARPA by Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass., DARPA said in a release.

“The gecko is one of the champion climbers in the animal kingdom,” said Dr. Matt Goodman, Z-Man’s  program manager, “so it was natural for DARPA to look to it for inspiration in overcoming some of the maneuver challenges that U.S. forces face in urban environments.”

A gecko’s toes consist of tiny, stalk-like setae, each containing hundreds of spatulae, about 200 nanometers in diameter, that come into contact with the surface, DARPA said. Importantly, the spatulae employ what’s called van der Waals intermolecular bonding — based on their size and shape rather than chemical bonding — which allows for easy attachment and detachment.

The challenge was to recreate that function and scale it to where it could support a human (the average male weight about 375 times as much as a gecko) carrying a combat load. In DARPA’s demonstration, an operator climbed up and down a 25-foot high glass wall while carrying an extra 50 pounds.

 “Like many of the capabilities that the Department of Defense pursues, we saw with vertical climbing that nature had long since evolved the means to efficiently achieve it,” Goodman said. “The challenge to our performer 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.”

DARPA said Z-Man tests are still underway, but before long scaling the sides of buildings like a gecko, or Spider-Man, might be a reality.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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