Gecko-inspired robot grippers could grab hold of space junk

Engineers tested the adhesive on a giant air hockey table and in microgravity

gecko-gripper robot

IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE  Aaron Parness of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory does his “best Superman” to grab a floating cube with a new gecko gripper–inspired hand in a microgravity plane.

H. Jiang et al/Science Robotics 2017

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Get a grip. A new robotic gripping tool based on gecko feet can grab hold of floating objects in microgravity. The grippers could one day help robots move dangerous space junk to safer orbits or climb around the outside of space stations.

Most strategies for sticking don’t work in space. Chemical adhesives can’t withstand the wide range of temperatures, and suction doesn’t work in a vacuum.

Adhesives inspired by gecko feet — which use van der Waals forces to cling without feeling sticky (SN Online: 11/18/14) — could fit the bill, says Mark Cutkosky of Stanford University, whose team has been designing such stickers for more than a decade. Now his team has built robotic gripper “hands” that can grapple objects many times their size without pushing them away, the researchers report June 28 in Science Robotics.

The team first tested the grippers in the Robo-Dome, a giant air hockey table at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where two 370-kilogram robots gently pushed each other around using a small square of gecko gripper.

Then last summer, Aaron Parness and Christine Fuller, of the Jet Propulsion Lab, and Hao Jiang of Stanford took the full gripper hand, which includes several patches of gripping material in a specific arrangement, on a microgravity flight in NASA’s Weightless Wonder aircraft. The team used the hand to grab and release a cube, cylinder and beach ball, which represented satellites, spent rockets or fuel tanks, and pressure vessels.

Gripper hands could be used to repair or move dead satellites, or help miniature satellites called CubeSats stick to larger spacecraft like barnacles, Parness says.

GOTCHA Gecko feet have inspired the latest in space gadgetry. K. Hickman/Stanford News, H. Jiang et al/Science Robotics 2017, BDML Stanford University

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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