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Robo-thopter spy bat 'gargoyle mode' cracked?

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A California-based researcher says he has developed "electro-adhesion" tech which will allow robots to crawl up walls and perhaps hang from ceilings with ease. Nonprofit R&D group SRI reckons its switchable stickiness kit would be handy for military and disaster-relief applications - and ultimately, for special forces operators, skyscraper window cleaners and caped crimefighters.

"Recent events such as natural disasters, military actions, and public safety threats have led to an increased need for robust robots - especially ones that can move in three dimensions," says SRI's Dr Harsha Prahlad.

"The ability to climb walls and other structures offers unique capabilities in military applications, such as urban reconnaissance, sensor deployment, and installation of network nodes in an urban environment. SRI is proud to have developed electroadhesive robots that can help with these situations."

Prahlad will tell the world about his scuttling wallcrawler bots today at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Pasadena. It seems that the droids use "compliant pads" which mould themselves to a surface and then induce electrical charges in it. This allows the pad's own electrodes to suck themselves firmly against the induced surface charges.

Apparently, this technique works well on wood, concrete, brick, glass or steel - almost anything that a building might be made of. SRI specify that the gear can support up to 2.3 pounds per square inch of pad, using only 100-odd microwatts of juice per pound.

This would seem to indicate that a 200-pound masked vigilante, commando or cat burglar could hang from a practically sized handgrip pad which would draw only 0.02 watt - it could stay stuck for at least 50 hours on a single AAA battery. And it's controllable at the flick of a switch, notes Prahlad, "as opposed to passive approaches using Van der Waals forces" - a comment plainly intended as a bitchslap for Italian prof Nicola Pugno and his plans for nifty Van der Waals effect spider/gecko-man superhero suits.

That said, SRI see the electrosuck tech as scaling up to human-weight applications only "in the future", implying that for now it only works on a smaller-sized robot scale. But at least Prahlad has actually built some working machinery - Pugno's notions of web-slinging spidergeckosuited window cleaners on the Empire State building are purely theoretical.

Anyway, even at the smallish robot scale, SRI electrostat-sticky droids could be handy for all kinds of things. The research outfit suggests swarming reconnaissance mini-insectobots; droid painters and window-cleaners; self-positioning radio-net node droids - of the very type being examined by the Pentagon just now - and, of course, toys.

Our favourite ploy is probably the use of the electric sucker pads for "long-term perching of micro air vehicles... Aerial mobility can be leveraged in conjunction with longer-term perching on a vertical wall."

Excellent - the tricky conundrum of just how the US Army's new robo-thopter spy bat might achieve its proposed "gargoyle mode" has already been solved. ®

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