Trending: ‘Canary in a coal mine’: Seattle marketing tech startup Amplero shuts down, lays off 17 employees
Scientists tested their robotic gripper on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft, known as the Weightless Wonder. (Jiang et al. / Stanford University via Science / AAAS)

Sandra Bullock’s character nearly got killed by space debris in the movie “Gravity” — but had she been equipped with the gecko-like robot built by researchers from Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, there would have been a lot less drama.

Stanford’s Hao Jiang and his colleagues created a space gripper equipped with postage stamp-sized patches of material that look superficially like refrigerator magnets. Those looks can be deceiving, though: Magnets don’t work on glass or aluminum, and other grappling methods such as suction or chemical adhesion don’t work in a vacuum.

To create “magnets” suitable for grabbing space debris, the team stole a trick from the geckos instead. The technology is described this week in a paper published by Science Robotics.

Aaron Parness from JPL’s Extreme Environments Robotics Group is part of the research team, and explained how the robotic grippers work last year during a NASA briefing. “Geckos stick using something called Van der Waals forces,” he said. “They have tiny hairs on their feet that allow them to take advantage of these forces.”

The hairy, sticky material on the team’s artificial gripper doesn’t feel sticky to the touch. It actually feels like rubber. “It’s not unlike a silicone cooking spatula. You can put it in the freezer and it’s fine. You can put it in boiling water, and it’s fine,” said Mark Cutkosky, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford.

The tiny hairs are structured to produce an attractive force that makes them adhere to a surface without glue. While current manufacturing methods can’t create microscopic spindles as fine-scaled as the hairs on a gecko’s feet, the sticky patches on the mechanical gripper are close enough to the general shape to take advantage of Van der Waals forces.

Parness said geckos can change the directionality of the hairs on their feet to stick onto a surface, and then let go at will. “If the gecko pulls down on its foot, it’s very sticky, but if the gecko doesn’t pull down or pushes up or to the side, it’s not sticky at all,” he said.

The researchers’ gecko gripper is built the same way. Parness explained that the on-off ability is important, because if something is just generally sticky, you’d have to give it a hard pull to get it unstuck. This can be a problem in space, where a sharp pull can send space junk hurtling off in the wrong direction.

The team tested the gripper at JPL in Pasadena, Calif., where it successfully grappled test objects weighing as much as 800 pounds. They also tried it out during brief periods of zero-G on NASA’s reduced-gravity airplane, known as the “Weightless Wonder” or the “Vomit Comet.” Those tests showed that that the gripper could grab onto flat and round objects with just a gentle tap, and release the objects with the push of a button.

Follow-up tests on the International Space Station confirmed that the technology worked during prolonged weightlessness as well. If the astronauts left the gripper engaged, it could maintain stickiness for weeks at a time.

A round object, such as a low-mass inflatable beach ball, presents a challenge because the gripper could push the object out of reach. “Although it doesn’t require much adhesion, it does require a very tiny engagement force because it is easy to knock the ball away,” Jiang said.

When the experiments took advantage of that engagement force, the gripper’s success rate was 100 percent for a test sphere, compared to 75 percent for a cube and 81 percent for a cylinder. “The failures were due to excessive misalignment between the gripper and the objects, caused by inaccurate positioning by the human operator or by the object bumping into obstacles that caused substantial disturbance,” the researchers said in their study.

Jiang told GeekWire that many adhesive technologies struggle to grab onto something like a ball with a small pressing force, but this is one of the gecko adhesive’s strengths.

Gripper photo
The dark pads in this photo of the gripping device are made of adhesive material inspired by the hairs on a gecko’s foot. (Jiang et al., Sci. Robot. 2, eaan4545, 2017, via Science / AAAS)

The gecko adhesive was also tested on NASA’s Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot 3, better known as LEMUR 3. The robot can use tiny hooks to grab onto rocky surfaces, and use gecko grippers to walk across smooth surfaces like solar panels or the exterior surface of a spacecraft. Such a robot could be used for inspections and repairs that astronauts would normally have to do themselves.

During a Facebook live presentation, Parness said that the team is working on maturing the technology in space. “As we move forward, the next step will be to do a robotic gripper on the outside of the space station,” he said.

The gripper could have applications on Earth as well. Even Ford has expressed interest, Cutkosky said.

“You can grasp quite gently and carry a very heavy load,” he said, so it could be ideal for lifting delicate windshields or heavy car parts.

The gripper could also be used in the medical field. In the future, the team is thinking about ways to attach prosthetics to the limbs of amputees. Cutkosky said one challenge is that the gecko material doesn’t work well in wet conditions, so it may not be useful for skin bandages or underwater exploration.

Experts say space is cluttered with more than 20,000 pieces of orbiting junk that are bigger than a softball, plus millions of smaller pieces that have gone unrecorded. Jiang says that because there aren’t any cleanup technologies in space right now, astronauts have to dodge the incoming junk.

“When there are dangers from debris, the space stations usually need to adjust their orbits slightly to avoid the debris,” he explained in his email to GeekWire.

A wide range of strategies have been proposed to clean up the mess — for example, pulling in pieces of debris with a robotic arm, or harpooning them, or pushing them into a net.

Such procedures can pose a risk of breaking the debris into bunches of smaller pieces, however. Gecko grippers may offer a gentler way for space robots to clean up the mess, thanks in part to the lessons we’ve learned from the reptiles.

In addition to Jiang and Parness, the co-authors of the Science Robotics study, titled “A Robotic Device Using Gecko-Inspired Adhesives Can Grasp and Manipulate Large Objects in Microgravity,” include Elliot Hawkes, Christine Fuller, Matthew Estrada, Srinivasan Suresh, Neil Abcouwer, Amy Han, Shiquan Wang, Christopher Ploch and Mark Cutkosky.

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter


Job Listings on GeekWork

Executive AssistantRad Power Bikes
Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.