Researchers at the European Space Agency and Simon Fraser University in Canada have been studying the gecko's ability to cling to surfaces when climbing vertically and otherwise in order to develop a robot that can eventually cling to spacecraft to carry out needed maintenance and cleaning in zero gravity.
The researchers used dry adhesive materials to create foot pads that, though 100 times larger than the clingy hairs on gecko's feet, are able to support the robot's weight and allow it to scale walls and various surfaces.
One of the biggest hurdles was finding an adhesive that would hold up in outer space conditions. Scotch, duct or pressure-sensitive tape collect dust and lost stickiness over time, plus those adhesives give off fumes in a vacuum, which could damage spacecraft systems.
“A depth-sensing indentation instrument was used inside a vacuum chamber to precisely assess the dry adhesive’s sticking performance,” said ESA’s Laurent Pambaguian. “Experimental success means deployment in space might one day be possible."
The robots could make spacecraft maintenance much safer.
As Michael Henrey of Simon Fraser University explains, adaptability will also be important for this robot. "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," he said. "This could then be adapted through software upgrades for different tasks that weren’t anticipated at the start of the project.
Our Abigaille climbing robot is therefore quite dexterous, with six legs each having four degrees of freedom, so it should be handle 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.”
Watch a video of the Abigaille robot below.