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Mystery Photo

What in the world is it?

Mystery Photo

Photo Credit: Mark R. Cutkosky, Stanford University Center for Design Research

Plant, animal or vegetable? This photo looks like a little of all three! Are these peach-colored seed pods? Or a close-up of an exotic birds’ feathers? Maybe it’s a giant starfish or the design for a rotating combination greenhouse and apartment building (okay, that last one was a stretch).

Don’t peek at the answer until you’ve given this a good try! Then, scroll down a bit and the truth will be revealed to you.

Did I fool you? This isn’t a plant, animal, or vegetable… it’s a robot’s foot! This robot was built to climb like a gecko. Its name is StickyBot, and it was developed by Mark Cutkosky and his team at Stanford University.

Real geckos are lizards that can scale walls thanks to thousands of tiny hairs, called setae, on the bottoms of their feet. Each hair splits into hundreds of tinier hairs, and these have a powerful grip on almost any surface. The setae are angled sharply downwards, so the feet stick when gravity tries to pull them down. But there’s no resistance at all if the foot is lifted up and away from the wall at the right angle.

StickyBot’s feet are an example of biomimetics, a whole new field of engineering which studies the adaptations of living creatures in order to create new materials or technologies. Robots that climb walls like lizards or insects could be useful for inspecting high places or surveillance.

Could humans every put on StickyBot feet and climb like Superman? The adhesion isn’t quite strong enough yet to support a human’s weight, unfortunately. It would also help to have a tail, or even mini-tails for each hand and foot, sort of like cowboy spurs. Tails would take some of the pressure off of the hands to keep a person from falling backwards off the wall.

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