Building soldiers Spider-Man suits

Everyone knows the brain-trust over at DARPA has been looking at and funding projects for Iron Man-like exoskeletons, but lets not forget about their pursuit of Spider-Man-like capabilities for troops as well.

Known as the “Z-Man” program, the Defense Department has been funding research into “biologically inspired aids” to enable soldiers to scale vertical walls in full combat gear without ropes or ladders.

Thanks to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, DARPA has had a significant breakthrough. A “proof-of-concept” 16-square-inch sheet of “Geckskin” – named for the simple Gecko – can adhere to a vertical glass wall while supporting a static load of up to 660 pounds.

The material is an integrated adhesive of synthetic soft skin and firm tendons that enables it to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. With a simple tug, the material separates from the surface and, like its namesake, leaves behind no wet, filmy or sticky residue.

Professor Al Crosby of the school’s Polymer Science and Engineering Department said Geckskin “literally looks like a piece of fabric with a rubber coating.”

However, the school’s Pentagon contract expired and researchers now are looking for commercial backers to further develop Geckskin, said Duncan Irschick, a member of the school’s biology department and part of the team that developed the material.

Meanwhile, most people are bound to look at Geckskin and wonder if it can be turned into a suit enabling a person to climb walls much like Peter Parker.

Irschick wouldn’t even address the question.

“Our policy is not to comment on that,” he told DefeneTech.

For now, based on photos and videos from UMass, the most practical use for the postcard-sized square is to hang a large flat-screen TV without bolts. And, hey, lets not disparage the significance of that breakthrough with football season fast approaching.

— Bryant Jordan

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • amod

    i think it will be a revolution on combating urban terrorism. it will give a new dimension to “house entry”
    looking forward to the first display of this suit.

    • Me-OK?

      because most houses are mostly glass?

      • David

        I think the use of glass was to show its ability to adhere to surfaces which do not lend themselves to climbing up. Having said that most cities have lots of big buildings with a facade which is mostly glass.

        • kevin

          Not Afghanistan… as the built up cities do i.e.; Kandahar city, kabul etc. The areas that have the problems where we do our patrols are mud hut villages, with little to no glass. They just build around a hole and they have themselves a window. Now for future wars, there is one thing we need to look at. You are halfway up a building, you have no way of getting your weapon since you need all limbs attached so that you can still have strength. A sniper shoots at you, a rocket comes flying at you, etc. At least with repelling, which we hardly do mind you, you have the ability to fire back. Because let’s face it, if you are 4 stories up and a sniper hits you, the guys on the ground “covering” you are not going to see where it came from.

  • Tiger

    Sounds like more liken Muppet labs Than Tony Stark……

  • jamesb

    fact follows fiction!

  • john moore

    Only took Iron man a few months in a desert with spare parts to build a suit hahaha

  • Papa Ray

    I would like to see this stuff tested on a pair of construction gloves. Some accidents in the construction industry and oil field are caused by items slipping from the grasp or such.

    I’m sure that others could think of other test beds and/or uses.

    • UAVGeek

      No Kidding, I had someone above me on a ladder drop a screwdriver, if I hadn’t been wearing a hardhat It would have punched through my skull.

  • BackwardsBoy

    Everybody’s wearing safety glasses.

    That must be one dangerous gecko.

    • ads

      Tokay Gecko’s bite hard… I mean real hard.

      • blight_

        In the eyes?

        • Thomas L. Nielsen

          Yes. That’s what makes the little buggers so dangerous – they go straight for the eyeballs….

          Regards & all,

          Thomas L. Nielsen
          Luxembourg

  • matt

    I wonder what the adhesion ability would be like on a surface that is not smooth like glass but roughly textured, or what the adhesion ability would be like on a surface with tiny particulates. For example : a soldier tries to climb a wall in Afghanistan only to find that he cannot stick to the surface due to it being covered with sand particles and dust. Would the tiny “hairs” not stick the granules and slip right off? Does the surface have to be free of particulate matter?

    • Josh K.

      I’d assume that the result would be similar to the experience of a normal gecko. I don’t know how they’d deal with dusty surfaces if they used a pad like in the video, but surfaces that are rough, but clean would probably be stickable, if you had the proper material backing for the setae material, like a rubber glove or stealth rubber climbing shoe.

      Also, I’m pretty sure that the setae hairs are directional, so if you rub it on a cloth to remove any sticky dust, you’d probably be good for preventing dangerous buildup…. though I guess you could survive serious dust buildup, since a small amount can still support a surprising amount of weight.

      • Chuck

        It’s not the same. Geckos are really light. Even trying to use this stuff on a painted wall, you might stick to the paint, but will the paint stay stuck to the wall?

    • kevin

      Well, the other thing we have to look at concerning dust and other small particles is that, in Afghanistan the outter villages are made of mud and clay. Honestly, I don’t see how these walls could hold up a 180lb soldier with about 50 to 60lbs of gear. Then the other problem is that, yeah he can go up the wall, but does he have the strength to lift a dead wieght pack on his back that wieghs roughly 50lbs? He doesn’t have the ground to support the pack with his body so now he is relying purely on core muscle. I think there still needs to a lot of testing done with this, as it is now I wouldn’t mind having a strip for my TV. :D

      • bmart.

        Good point kevin; in addition to this, one major thing you have to look at with mud/clay, is that when you apply a shearing force (such as that of a soldiers weight applied to the mud/clay via his hands) there is a certain threshold where once the applied force reaches that upper limit, any more force would cause the mud/clay to deform. You can think of this the same way as how if you have a stick of butter, you can push a spoon against it, and while the butter will not deform immediately, once you push hard enough, it gains fluidity.

        In short, mud/clay would exhibit shear-thinning flow properties, and if the soldiers weight would cause a shearing stress that exceeds that tolerable by the mud/clay (I have no idea what this threshold would be for mud/clay), then the wall would become almost inviscid, and would appear to “melt”. There goes the upward progress.

        And I agree, it would be pretty cool to have a patch for football season.

  • Russell Romick

    Good question, it all has to do with surface contact so if the surface is real dirty it would most likely become a problem. However if you are using gloves, knee pads and boots, you could maximize the surface area contacting the surface in question.

  • Joe Lewis

    No mention of the F-35 this week? Come on DT, whats up? The F-35 does it’s first in- flight weapons drop on the 8th, and no article about it. Is this all I get for the weekend?
    I need more Defense Tech, then this for the weekend.

  • stephen russell

    Now they use this for the next SpiderMan or Avengers movie alone & use NO FX for close up scenes or stunts & the apps can be incredible:
    Search Rescue
    Urban firefighting
    Rescues at Sea
    Security
    IF OKs for civilian use.

    • Josh K.

      I’d assume that civilians would be the first to use it. I doubt even the ballsiest operator would trust his life to an right out of the box “unproven” technology unless there was a 100% guarantee that it would work. Erstwhile, an adrenaline junkie climber would jump at the chance to get a better grip on a rockwall, even if the technology were circumspect.

      I mean, it has applications beyond just climbing stuff. Sprinters could use it to get better traction on the starting gun, which would probably have various Olympic athletes jumping at the chance to find some such shoes.

      • Uncle Bill

        Erst what?

  • James Horn

    well this may just be a fail the gecko they are holding is a tokay gecko which is the skin htye want to study these arent as strong climbers as other so people wouldnt be very well supported their bones could break wih one wrong move becasue they dont have the light weight that geckos do

    • Honsu

      geckos all climb the same way and the gecko itself is just inspiration anyway

  • http://www.hcp.kk5.org Brian Black

    If you put a small piece on the dashboard of your car (or F35), you’d have a handy place to put a cup.

    That’s got to be worth a few billion dollars of research and development. They can have that idea for nothing… the non-slip cup-holder; that one’s on me.

  • Kyle

    everyone seems to think that you will be putting strain on your bones/ligaments
    where are yall getting this from. i figure if its a full suit, your hands wont be stuck to the inside of the suit. it will be tight, but not enough to cause strain. acts more like a pouch.
    just my guess.

    • Snake Oil Baron

      Yeah, a strap or two would probably be enough to redistribute the forces.

      As for pulling ones’s self up being hard on the tendons, this might be true if one only had gloves (like doing chin-ups repeatedly without practice) but add in a set of boots and you then have 3 limbs lifting your weight.

      But some kind of robot with gecko-like tank treads would probably be faster.

      • Snake Oil Baron

        The robot could have a couple of ladder rungs for the soldier/SWAT team officer to hang on while it climbs and then climb up the last couple feet with.

  • Archangel

    I personally think this may need to develop a little more

  • Jeffrey

    I always thought that that would be cool to be able to climb like a gecko and if we could make it in a glove form and also in the shoes so we could get to a snipers perch or to ushualy r un reachable on foot

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  • PV2 Watson

    Welcome to the future ladies and gentlemen

  • Army3

    Not a bad Idea But – Is this really the type of gear needed in combat, I could see a sniper havening a use for this . I myself see a use for the average solder -It’s not a bad idea and I myself would like to see it happen but I would rather see the time and money spent on clothing / gear to stop the shrapnel or hopefully a bullet – Solders do have the body armor for upper body so find a way to help protect the hand and legs. i.e. A cloth or something in that line to help the survivability of the common problems of staying alive – this is my opinion on this .