Researchers develop wall-climbing robots

Step aside, Spidey! This robot is built to scale the side of a building

A research organization has developed a new technology that enables some robots to scale walls.

Wall-climbing robots could be a boon for the US military, which could use them on reconnaissance or other missions in war zones, said Philip von Guggenberg, director of business development for SRI International, a nonprofit research and development organization that created the technology. The independent group has received some funding from DARPA, the technology research arm of the Pentagon.

Von Guggenberg said that the new electrical adhesive technology called compliant electroadhesion, provides an electrically controllable way to stick machines to a wall. Since positive and negative charges attract, SRI researchers induce negative charges into the wall being climbed, while at the same time imposing positive charges in the robot, using an on-board battery source.

That adhesion lets the robots, using either feet or tracks, scale a vertical wall. They can even climb walls covered in dust and debris, or made out of concrete, wood, steel, glass, drywall, and brick. However, they have a harder time with damp surfaces, von Guggenberg noted. He also added that regular robots, especially those with tracks, can be retrofitted with the technology and turned into wall climbers.

When the charges are shut off, the adhesion ends.

"The government is interested in deploying robots that can climb walls and then create a wireless network or lay sensors to send information back," said von Guggenberg. "The challenge in those [front line] environments is to deploy things. If you're trying to deploy a wireless network, the range is greater if it's higher up. The alternative is to have a soldier go out and climb a wall to set something up."

Von Guggenberg would not say if the government has made any commitment to use the technology. He did, however, say that they're six to nine months away from being able to use the technology in a real environment.

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