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Building soldiers Spider-Man suits

by Mike Hoffman on August 10, 2012

Everyone knows the brain-trust over at DARPA has been looking at and funding projects for Iron Man-like exoskeletons, but lets not forget about their pursuit of Spider-Man-like capabilities for troops as well.

Known as the “Z-Man” program, the Defense Department has been funding research into “biologically inspired aids” to enable soldiers to scale vertical walls in full combat gear without ropes or ladders.

Thanks to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, DARPA has had a significant breakthrough. A “proof-of-concept” 16-square-inch sheet of “Geckskin” – named for the simple Gecko – can adhere to a vertical glass wall while supporting a static load of up to 660 pounds.

The material is an integrated adhesive of synthetic soft skin and firm tendons that enables it to “drape” over a surface to maximize contact. With a simple tug, the material separates from the surface and, like its namesake, leaves behind no wet, filmy or sticky residue.

Professor Al Crosby of the school’s Polymer Science and Engineering Department said Geckskin “literally looks like a piece of fabric with a rubber coating.”

However, the school’s Pentagon contract expired and researchers now are looking for commercial backers to further develop Geckskin, said Duncan Irschick, a member of the school’s biology department and part of the team that developed the material.

Meanwhile, most people are bound to look at Geckskin and wonder if it can be turned into a suit enabling a person to climb walls much like Peter Parker.

Irschick wouldn’t even address the question.

“Our policy is not to comment on that,” he told DefeneTech.

For now, based on photos and videos from UMass, the most practical use for the postcard-sized square is to hang a large flat-screen TV without bolts. And, hey, lets not disparage the significance of that breakthrough with football season fast approaching.

– Bryant Jordan

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