https://www.newscientist.com/article/2139071-gecko-inspired-robot-has-grippers-that-could-clean-up-space-junk/

Gecko-inspired robot has grippers that could clean up space junk

Gecko

In space, grabbing onto things is hard. A new robot that uses grippers inspired by gecko feet could solve that problem, helping clear up the mess of debris that orbits Earth.

The toaster-sized device can grip, hold onto and move around even large, smooth surfaces in microgravity, on both flat and curved objects. To do this, it uses a “dry adhesive” material created by Hao Jiang at Stanford University in California and his colleagues.

“This ability to grab onto an object nearly anywhere, instead of needing a specific grapple point that may not even be there, is really advantageous,” says Matthew Spenko at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. “It means you don’t need a precision approach.”

In an environment where an accidental nudge can send something flying and space debris can be travelling faster than the speed of sound, agility is key.

Get a grip

Geckos can hold onto almost any smooth surface with just a few toes, which are covered in tiny rubbery hairs. The ends of those hairs split off into such small strands that they interact with the molecules of any surface the gecko is climbing. This produces a Velcro-type effect that acts as an adhesive only when the gecko’s toes are pulling along a surface and bending – an action that increases the area of the touching hairs.

The researchers mimicked this trait for their gripper, which features a thin sheet covered in protruding wedges one-tenth of a millimetre wide. These micro-wedges stick to a smooth surface when they bend as they are pulled across it. Single sheets of this type of material have been used before to create tiny robots that can climb smooth walls while dragging heavy loads.

Jiang and his colleagues used two wedge-covered sheets with a robotic pulley that pulled the sheets together once they touched an object. This made the system stronger than the single-sheet version by locking the object between two sets of wedges. Attached to a robotic arm, the device could gently grab and secure even large pieces of debris.

Remains of decay

Space junk in Earth’s orbit is a growing problem. Bits and pieces of dead satellites, spacecraft and other discarded or broken-down equipment whizz around our planet, all potentially hazardous to working satellites and the International Space Station.

In space, grabbing onto things is hard. A new robot that uses grippers inspired by gecko feet could solve that problem, helping clear up the mess of debris that orbits Earth.

The toaster-sized device can grip, hold onto and move around even large, smooth surfaces in microgravity, on both flat and curved objects. To do this, it uses a “dry adhesive” material created by Hao Jiang at Stanford University in California and his colleagues.

“This ability to grab onto an object nearly anywhere, instead of needing a specific grapple point that may not even be there, is really advantageous,” says Matthew Spenko at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. “It means you don’t need a precision approach.”

In an environment where an accidental nudge can send something flying and space debris can be travelling faster than the speed of sound, agility is key.

Get a grip

Geckos can hold onto almost any smooth surface with just a few toes, which are covered in tiny rubbery hairs. The ends of those hairs split off into such small strands that they interact with the molecules of any surface the gecko is climbing. This produces a Velcro-type effect that acts as an adhesive only when the gecko’s toes are pulling along a surface and bending – an action that increases the area of the touching hairs.

The researchers mimicked this trait for their gripper, which features a thin sheet covered in protruding wedges one-tenth of a millimetre wide. These micro-wedges stick to a smooth surface when they bend as they are pulled across it. Single sheets of this type of material have been used before to create tiny robots that can climb smooth walls while dragging heavy loads.

Jiang and his colleagues used two wedge-covered sheets with a robotic pulley that pulled the sheets together once they touched an object. This made the system stronger than the single-sheet version by locking the object between two sets of wedges. Attached to a robotic arm, the device could gently grab and secure even large pieces of debris.

Remains of decay

Space junk in Earth’s orbit is a growing problem. Bits and pieces of dead satellites, spacecraft and other discarded or broken-down equipment whizz around our planet, all potentially hazardous to working satellites and the International Space Station.

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