It can be a bit tricky for robots to grab onto things. Their clutches and reflexes aren’t wired as well as the human hand is, so rather than trying to replicate a human hand’s versatility, we look for other alternatives.
Some ways we can get a robotic arm to pick things up are by way of suction cup, magnet, or sticky surfaces via certain kinds of adhesives, but many of these methods are ineffective in outer space, where microgravity, build materials, and unstable temperatures render each method ineffective.
Now writing in the journal Scientific Robotics, researchers from both Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have developed a new type of gripping system that was reportedly inspired by gecko feet. It turns out that despite how everything else fares poorly in space, gecko feet fare well, enabling the creatures to cling onto things.
Image Credit: Jiang et al.
It’s a type of adhesive that only sticks to objects when it’s pressed against them, and it creates a near-perfect grip capable of holding almost 900 pounds and over 80 times the volume of the grippers themselves.
The new technology has been tested here on Earth, as well as on the International Space Station. So far, the results don’t lie; we might be onto something huge here that could revolutionize the way we grab onto things in space.
A robotic prototype unit has been built that utilizes this special gecko-inspired adhesive in several ways, including a flat grid that can be used to grip flat objects, as well as robotic arms that are laced with the stuff, enabling the robot to even grab onto round or oddly-shaped objects.
Image Credit: Kurt Hickman/Stanford News Service
In the image you see above, the robot's surface is clutching onto a flat pane of glass. The purple squares you see are the active gecko-like adhesive strips that are making it all possible.
This multi-surface adhesion would be great for solving the space junk problem, because space junk comes in all different shapes and sizes. For example, rockets are cylindrical and many satellites have at least one flat surface, so this robotic gripper comes prepared.
What’s more is the adhesion process can attach itself to objects and then detach itself in space without adding any unwanted momentum to the object, which means it could be a great solution for controlled removal of space junk. The technology could even prove useful for astronauts working on spacewalks, as it can lend a helping hand in terms of holding onto things.
There will obviously be baby steps to take in terms of using this new technology widely in outer space, but since it seems to work great there, the researchers are confident that it’s the right tool for the job. It should be interesting to see where development of this new gecko-inspired adhesive goes and whether it will be good to good use.