Gecko Gloves Allow You to Climb Like 'Spider-Man'

Researchers tested the gecko gloves with great success on glass walls. (Photo: Journal of the Royal Society Interface).

Much research has gone into understanding what makes a gecko's feet so sticky, and now we finally have the payoff. Researchers have invented gloves that allow human wearers to climb walls like "Spider-Man," reports the BBC.

Geckos pull off their gravity-defying feats thanks to tiny, hair-like strands on the bottom of their feet called setae. Remarkably, researchers have discovered that the setae provide a sticking force by taking advantage of a weak attraction between molecules on the hairs and molecules on the climbing surface. Though the force isn't that strong, the setae number in the thousands on a gecko's foot, which multiplies the weak attraction.

Scientists have attempted to mimic this design with the aim of creating new kinds of super-adhesives, but this has proven difficult because the sticky force becomes less effective on a larger scale.

Researchers at Stanford University may have solved the problem, however. Their latest effort has not only uncovered the reason why previous attempts have been unsuccessful, but they have engineered a work-around. The result is gecko-like pads that can be worn on the human hand, which allow the wearer to have a super-sticky climbing ability.

In tests, a roughly 155-pound man was able to scale a 12-foot-high vertical glass wall using the 140 square centimeter silicone pads, one in each hand. The pads were tested hundreds of times without failure. They work by utilizing artificial setae called "microwedges," which are attached to the pads using tiny springs. The springs balance out the microwedges so they can be used in the most efficient way possible to maximize the sticky force.

Aside from allowing researchers to realize their boyhood dreams of becoming "Spider-Man," the so-called "gecko gloves" could have important real-world applications as well. Window-washers, for instance, could use them to scale the outsides of buildings. Astronauts could also be equipped with the pads, for handling and grasping onto surfaces on a space walk. Such gloves could even have military applications.

So far the prototype only works on clean, smooth surfaces, but the research team at Stanford is looking into developing a self-cleaning version inspired by how geckos maintain the condition of their own sticky feet.