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Boffins build sticky-limbed lizard-bots to tend spacecraft

Gecko-inspired units able to crawl outside hulls

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Researchers with the European Space Agency (ESA) have developed a class of robots which could one day grace the outside of orbiting spacecraft.

Dubbed "Abigaille", the robot family uses a dry-adhesive material to cling to structures and move along surfaces even in extreme conditions such as space travel.

According to researchers from ESA and Canada's Simon Fraser University, the Abigaille system design was inspired by the physiology that geckos and other small lizards employ to crawl along walls and rock faces.

Inspired by the tiny hairs on the gecko's foot, which are able to connect with materials on a molecular level, researchers equipped the treads on the robots' feet with microscopic-scale pads capable of supporting an Abigaille unit when climbing up a wall or ceiling, or when subjected to forces and conditions present on the outside of a spacecraft.

The boffins noted that the dry adhesive technology is a critical component for a unit operating in the vacuum of space on highly valuable and sensitive units which could be damaged by the fumes from chemical adhesives or the stresses of velcro or magnetic connections.

Researchers believe that a six-legged Abigaille 'bot could one day serve as a maintenance and cleaning unit, crawling along the outside of larger spacecraft to perform various tasks.

"It's very expensive to upgrade hardware once it is up in space so the idea would be to fly a more general robot in the first place. This could then be adapted through software upgrades for different tasks that weren't anticipated at the start of the project," said Simon Fraser University researcher Michael Henrey.

“Our Abigaille climbing robot is therefore quite dexterous, with six legs each having four degrees of freedom, so it should be handle environments that a wheeled robot could not.

The team plans to continue work on the unit to improve both its performance and its ability to move along various surfaces and contours. ®

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