Climbing robotic tank


Something of gravity is developing in Simon Fraser University’s research labs. Gravity defying that is. Researchers have put together a machine on the edge, a machine that can crawl over the edge and down the other side.

The robot constructed by the team is not all that weighty, but it may make a big impact. At around one quarter of a kilogram, the tailless timing belt based climbing platform (TBCP-II) adheres to vertical surfaces.

The method by which the wall walking — or more accurately, rolling — occurs is intriguing. The tank robot’s treads are coated with a state of the art material; as it rolls, tiny bumps resembling “mushroom caps” cling to the surface of what ever the robot is moving along.

The researchers published their findings in the Oct. 31 issue of Smart Materials and Structures in an article titled “A tailless timing belt climbing platform utilizing dry adhesives with mushroom caps.”

In an interview with the Manitoban, the lead author of the article, Jeff Krahn, compared the robot’s treads to the feet of geckos.

According to the Smart Materials and Structures article, as far as the authors know, “The TBCP-II is the first tank-like climbing robot that utilizes biomimetic adhesives [ . . . ] and does not require a tail to provide a preloading force.” The mushroom caps at the end of silicon strands serve to increase the amount of surface area that each tread can maintain contact with. Or in layman’s terms: this robotic mini tank has overcome one of the major hurdles to turning corners in three dimensions.

The tail, who’s preloading force was previously a staple, tended to get in the way of prior designs’ ability to take turns, from horizontal to vertical and the reverse. That’s a pretty crucial ability for any robot doing something more than cleaning the one window.

“A fixed tail inhibits adhesive contact while transitioning,” Krahn explained.
The article in Smart Materials and Structures explains that those “biomimetic adhesives” are key to greater “adhesion to a wide range of materials.” Between their stronger stick and the innovative design of the tank itself, the research has moved us considerably closer to realizing the dream of affordable remote-controlled robotic climbers capable of navigating in three dimensions. In fact, Krahn is hopeful that “we can see commercially viable climbing robots within five years.”

Possible uses of three-dimension-capable robots include a number of dangerous tasks, varying from window washing to maintenance at nuclear power plants and rescue missions in unsafe terrain or rubble.

Development is a never-ending process. An even more adaptable, if more complicated, platform is next on the agenda for the highflying researchers.
“A spider-like robot, while more difficult to achieve because of [ . . . ] control strategy requirements would allow for greater maneuverability than a tank-like robot — like the ability to turn on a dime, and climb very rough surfaces like a cliff face,” Krahn said.

Closing out the interview with Krahn, I could not resist a chance to ask what interesting applications had been speculated about around the lab. Krahn blithely restored hope in a long abandoned childhood dream of mine: “I suppose the most interesting application for our adhesives would be a Spider-Man suit [or] gloves.”

I suppose that’s awesome.

illustration by kara passey