The gecko has become the inspiration for next-generation gripping mechanisms in soft robots.
The gecko lizard family are known as some of the world's best climbers. There are over 5,000 species of gecko, many of which are found in warm climates.
While sporting a wide variety of colors, the gecko's true uniqueness lies in its pads -- toes which have incredible dexterity and adhesive properties which enables them to grip onto a variety of surfaces.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego, Stanford University, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said this week that this animal has become the inspiration for a new robotic gripper which combines the properties of gecko toes and air-powered soft robots.
Past work mimicked gecko toes to create an adhesive suitable for gripping flat surfaces. This research has now been extended and has combined this sticky adhesive with a soft robot gripper.
According to the team, the tiny microscopic hairs found on gecko toes are what make the lizard species such adept climbers. These hairs end in nanostructures which interact with molecules on the surface the gecko is trying to grip in a process called van der Waals force, which allows gecko toes to easily attach and detach.
The adhesive mimics the van der Waals forces through synthetic materials and "by coating the inside of the soft robotic fingers with these adhesives [this] maximizes the amount of surface area they make contact with, ensuring a better grip," the researchers say.
The gripper's appendages are coated with the gecko adhesive, which the team says allows the robot to grip objects including pipes, mugs, and volcanic rocks.
The gripper itself has been created with silicone-based rubber and a mixture of soft and hard materials which distributes force across the robot, enabling a strong grip, conformation to the object behind held, and constant contact.
The robot is not only able to grasp smooth objects, but also those with rough textures -- a feat which is not common in the robotics field today.
In addition, the soft robot can lift up to 45 lbs at different angles and in a wide range of settings -- with the potential to work not only on industrial factory floors but potentially in the International Space Station (ISS).
The researchers hope to expand their work further by developing algorithms which can improve the adhesives, as well as experiment with the use of the gripper in zero-gravity and space environments.
The research will be presented at the 2018 International Conference on Robotics and Automation May 21 to 25 in Brisbane, Australia.