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Geckos! They’re distant relatives of the household lizards that we all are afraid of. Geckos are mostly found in the wild. There are more than 1500 species of geckos, all of which have some similarities and differences. Humans have been envious of geckos for thousands of years. It was thought that spiders were the best vertical climbers. Aristotle commented on the extraordinary abilities of the gecko to climb virtually any walls or vertical surfaces. But only recently, with the assistance of electron microscopes, that we have come to fully understand and appreciate the true reason behind that spider-man-like-climbing abilities.
Geckos have millions of microscopic hairs on their toes, each of which is only about one-tenth the size of a human hair. Each of those hairs has billions of branched out split ends that exert minuscule inter-molecular forces when in contact with a surface. But just because of the sheer number of hair and split ends, those minuscule inter-molecular forces add up to something really strong, called Van der Waals force. Geckos use Van der Waals force to grip firmly to any surface in a direction that helps them climb up or down vertical surfaces, hard or smooth. What’s interesting is that geckos do not use any adhesive on their feet and can detach themselves, at will. Those billions of split ends, called spatulae, clean themselves automatically when the gecko moves on muddy or sticky surfaces.
Kellar Autumn, Professor of Biology at the Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, along with three undergraduate students first discovered that geckos use Van der Waals force for this ability and realized that this could be used in developing adhesives, hence they patented it. They studied geckos in further detail and found that their feet physics is different from anything else found in nature. Had it not been for their research, we would not have gecko gloves, band-aids, adhesives.
A team of mechanical engineering PhD students at Stanford University, Salomon Trujillo, and John Ulmen have developed a vertically climbing robot called the sticky bot. Currently a work in progress, it’s a combination of mechanics, biology, and physics. This robot uses 19 motors to climb up hard and smooth surfaces, alike. They think it could have applications in surveillance for mobile CCTV cameras, building and site inspections, firefighting, and space exploration.
Thank you, Kellar Autumn, Salomon Trujillo, and John Ulmen, for your curiosity, research, and contribution to humanity!
Living organisms have evolved well-adapted structures and materials over geological time through natural selection. Biomimetics has given rise to new technologies inspired by biological solutions at macro and nanoscales. Humans have looked at nature for answers to problems throughout our existence. Understanding nature and its meticulous efforts in the form of evolution of different species that thrive in different environments has given us millions of years of research and development, as we can call it. Hence, it only makes sense to take advantage of such an invaluable resource to design better products and solve many of our problems.
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