A few weeks ago, Cambridge University announced research findings saying that Spider-Man could never exist because a human being’s hands and feet don’t have enough surface area to include the size of the sticky pads they would need to lift a body up on a smooth surface. The Cambridge researchers said any Spider-Man wannabe would need adhesive pads covering at least 40% of their body–-making wall crawling impractical.
It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.
The gecko glove is a pad of 24 tiles covered in a synthetic adhesive that shares large loads—like the weight of a human body—across all tiles evenly. On the synthetic adhesives that cover each tile are sawtooth-shape polymer structures only 100 micrometers long, reports Stanford News. That’s about the width of a human hair. The pads themselves that the tiles are attached to are in turn attached to special degressive springs that become less stiff the further they are stretched. When the springs are pulled on, equal force is applied to each of the pad’s 24 tiles, causing the sawtooth-shape polymer structures to flatten and thus release themselves from the surface the wearer is climbing.
The pads aren’t just useful for potential superheroes, says Mark Cutkosky, Stanford University’s Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper. “Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays. We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”
That’s great and all, but what we really want to know is what it’s like to climb like Spider-Man? “It’s a lot of fun, but also a little weird, because it doesn’t feel like you should be gripping glass,” Hawkes told Stanford News. “You keep expecting to slip off, and when you don’t, it surprises you. It’s pretty exhilarating.”
You can check out Hawkes using his gecko pads in the video below. Here’s hoping he gets started developing web shooters soon.