Future Robots Could Have Wall-Climbing Gecko Feet

A new technique produces an adhesive surface that can be turned on and off with flashes of ultraviolet light.

Those prone to paranoia about our robotic future will be delighted to hear that the quest to assemble the ultimate super-powered robot continues apace this week. And by "delighted" I mean "freaked out."

A new study published today in the journal Science Robotics describes an adhesive system that could potentially allow robots to climb walls, gecko-style. In fact, the biomimetic technology is directly inspired by the gecko's super ability to cling effortlessly to any surface, including glass.

Besides being a unwieldy acronym, the bioinspired photocontrollable microstructured transport device (BIPMTD) is designed to work as a small-scale laboratory tool - for now. When attached to the end of a mechanized sorting instrument, for instance, it can grab glass beakers or microscope slides while in "sticky" mode, then deliver and drop them elsewhere.

This business of letting go is the key part of the innovation. Previously, switching between sticky and non-sticky modes could only be achieved with the use of extreme heat or complicated electronics. But with the new design, the surface can be toggled between modes using flashes of ultraviolet light.

Down the road, this "photoswitchable" design could lead to robotic hands and feet that become instantly sticky when the 'bot needs to grab something, or climb a vertical surface, or freak out adjacent humans.

It works like this: The top layer of the BIPMTD surface dotted with pillar-shaped adhesive microstructures, which are rooted in a middle layer of liquid crystalline elastomer (LCE) containing the photoresponsive material azobenzene.

When the azobenzene is hit with UV light, the molecules instantly reconfigure, bending the adhesive pillars away from the surface. This detaches the object or surface from the BIPMTD grabber, kind of like peeling off a sticker. What's more, the intensity of the UV light causes more or less curvature, depending, which can allow for various levels of adhesive strength.

RELATED: Glowing Geckos Light the Way to Improved Biodiversity

The whole system is based on the mechanics of how geckos move around. Gecko feet are covered in non-sticky spatula-shaped fibers that can switch instantly to an adhesive state, allowing quick detachment and attachment. When a gecko plants its foot, the sticky stuff kicks in, allowing it to adhere to a vertical surface. But when it lifts its legs to move, a biological detachment mechanism engages that's entirely automated, as it were, by the lizard's nervous system.

It's one of Mother Nature's niftier tricks, and if all goes according to plan, we'll be able to incorporate this ability in our future robotic overlords devices.

WATCH VIDEO: 'Gecko' Tape Is Grippy Not Sticky