They call it “Z-Man” but only because “Spider Man” had already been taken and put under trademark, said Eugene Choi, Technology Leader for the climbing device developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
The literature described Z-Man as designed to “enable the warfighter carrying a full combat load to scale vertical walls.”
Choi said the military already had a lot of gear to help with climbing in the field, but “we didn’t have a very good way to climb those surfaces” that troops would meet in city combat, such as glass, concrete or dry wall.
Z-Man prototypes consisted of hand-held devices that stick to any surface and bear loads of more than 300 pounds. The handhelds have ropes that attach to the feet of the climber and literally allow the climber to walk up the wall.
The climbing device was one of 68 inventions, concepts and programs on display Wednesday at the annual DARPA “Demo Day” in the Pentagon’s courtyard.
The agency billed the displays as a way to show off its “diverse portfolio of innovative technologies and military systems at various stages of development and readiness, spanning every military domain from undersea to outer space and across all of DARPA’s strategic focus areas, from sensors and microsystems to cyber and spectrum to biological technologies and counterterrorism.”
Choi focused on the “biological” part. He said that Z-Man was “biologically inspired.” The inspirer was the gecko.
“We looked to the natural world” when it came to climbing, he said, “and the gecko is the climbing champ of the natural world.”
DARPA scientists analyzed how geckos marshal what physicists call “van der Waal forces,” or an amazing ability to stick to stuff, to go up just about any surface, Choi said.
“We had to get down to the microscopic, even the atomic level” to come up with Z-Man, he said. “I guess you could say a crude analogy is that it’s like Velcro.”