Gecko’s Trick Makes for No-Slip Grip (+)

In the Fall 2015 issue of E&S, we examined how the tiny hairs on gecko feet exploit attractive forces—called van der Waals forces —between temporary electric dipoles to create adhesion.

We also noted that JPL engineer Aaron Parness and colleagues have used that concept to create a material made of synthetic hairs much thinner than a human hair. They hope to use the material to develop a gecko-inspired gripping technology to manipulate objects in space. A four-minute video, Crazy Engineering: Gecko Gripper, highlights some of their work—as well as some charming geckos.

In addition, JPL recently posted an artist’s conception of a project in progress—a creation called LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) that might one day use Parness’s technology to inspect and maintain installations on the International Space Station.

RoboSimian to the Rescue (+)

In our Summer 2015 article Robots to the Rescue, we wrote about RoboSimian—JPL’s entry into the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge—and how its JPL, Caltech, and UC Santa Barbara creators prepared it for the contest.

The competition, motivated by the radiation dangers posed to response crews at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after a tsunami struck in 2011, challenged teams to design a robot that can perform many of the same emergency procedures as a human rescue worker.

This year’s Robotics Challenge featured robots designed and built by 23 teams from around the world and culminated with a final round of physical tests in June that challenged the robots’ dexterity and mobility. This 90-second JPL video of the robot’s-eye view of the action shows RoboSimian driving a vehicle, clearing debris, opening doors, and even cutting through walls when instructed by a human operator. For its efforts, it snagged a fifth-place finish.

Sisir Karumanchi, a robotics expert and member of the JPL RoboSimian team, hailed the competition as “a seminal event in the field of robotics, with multiple teams demonstrating significant advances in human-robot communications, perception, motion planning, and control of robots for field use.”

Robots to the Rescue

When disasters strike, first responders—often highly trained emergency medical staff—risk their lives to rescue victims and secure damaged structures. However, an apelike robot named RoboSimian could one day provide a safer alternative.

RoboSimian is JPL’s entry in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The competition, motivated by the radiation dangers posed to response crews at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station after a tsunami struck in 2011, challenges teams to design a robot that can perform many of the same emergency procedures as a human rescue worker.

Composed of researchers from JPL, Caltech, and UC Santa Barbara, the RoboSimian team crafted a machine featuring four equally strong and dexterous limbs that allow the robot to drive a vehicle, climb over debris, turn valves, and even cut through walls when instructed by a human operator. At the final competition this June in Pomona, RoboSimian’s performances on these tasks will be judged against at least 10 other competitors. Scoring will also include the competitors’ performance during a surprise task that won’t be revealed until the day of the competition.

Although robotic rescue workers might seem outlandish now, the reality might be closer than we think. Several previous DARPA challenges of the last decade—in which Caltech and JPL have both participated—led directly to advancements in the driverless car technologies that are being explored today.


Photo courtesy of JPL-Caltech