Widgets Magazine
MIGHTY TACTICAL

How US troops could get climbing powers like Spider-Man

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is more apt to describe their new climbing technology to be more like geckos than Spider-Man. Despite being less awesome, DARPA's comparison is much more accurate – but only because Spider-Man isn't real and geckos are. Still, the tech would allow troops to scale surfaces like glass walls in full kit with no extra noise.

Sound too good to be true? It's called the Z-Man project, and it has already been tested.


American troops never know where they could end up until they're prepping to go. Even then they don't really know what kinds of obstacles they'll encounter during the missions – or more importantly, how they'll overcome those obstacles. The how is part of DARPA's job. Its mission is to develop technology that creates transformational change across industries in order to give American troops an edge on the battlefields of tomorrow. For the last couple of years, it's been notoriously adept at making our superhero dreams become a reality. Now they've gone and done it again: this time it's Spider-Man.

Which is a really good choice, not only because of the urban environments U.S. troops frequently encounter but because all branches encounter unending problems when working in a foreign environment and could rely on the flexibility provided by the kinds of powers Spider-Man has. The first test was the development of polymer microstructures that would allow wearers to scale any surface.

Intermolecular forces between its toes and a surface means the gecko easily attaches to and from any surface.

Geckos have hundreds of stalk-like setae that are around 100 microns in length and 2 microns in radius all over their feet. From individual setae, a bundle of hundreds of terminal tips called spatulae, approximately 200 nanometers in diameter at their widest, branch out and contact the climbing surface. A Gecko can hold itself up with one toe, making it the animal world's expert on climbing. Until now.

DARPA demonstrated the power of the new climbing system on a glass wall. A 218-pound man ascended a 25-foot tall wall with an additional carrying load of 25 pounds. He had no other climbing equipment than the gecko-inspired climbing gear. The climber used paddles with the gecko tech to ascend the structure.

A DARPA engineer scales a wall using the new Z-Man technology.

(DARPA)

"Like many of the capabilities that the Department of Defense pursues, we saw with vertical climbing that nature had long since evolved the means to efficiently achieve it," said Dr. Matt Goodman, the DARPA program manager for Z-Man. "The challenge to our performer team was to understand the biology and physics in play when geckos climb and then reverse-engineer those dynamics into an artificial system for use by humans."