Biologically inspired gecko-bots? They aren’t as rare as you might imagine.

We’ve been covering them since 2009, and they’ve existed since at least 2006. That said, the latest generation, out of Stanford, comes in more sizes—and they’re really, really strong.

Two of the robots climb walls just like their namesake, but they can carry more than their own weight. One 9-gram robot can hoist nearly a kilogram. Indeed, it tows the original Gecko-inspired robot (Stickybot) up a wall in the video. Another bot, assembled with tweezers, drags a paper clip over ten times its weight.

The most impressive (if less vertical) of the lot is the 12-gram ground robot that can drag over 2,000 times its own weight across a surface. David Christenson, a Stanford engineer working on the robots, explains this is the equivalent of a human “pulling around a blue whale.” (That’s 20 times stronger than an ant.)

What’s the secret to these robots’ super strength? They pull themselves up (or across) surfaces on feet covered in tiny rubber spikes that mimic the minuscule hairs covering a gecko’s footpads. When the bot places its foot, the spikes bend under the weight, increasing their surface area and stickiness. Once the weight is removed the, the reverse happens—they straighten and easily disengage.

Gecko-inspired materials may make for tiny, super strong climbing robots, humans climbing buildings like Spiderman, or more mundanely they might simply allow us to more easily stick and unstick stuff.

University of Massachusetts researchers, for example, are making an adhesive called Geckskin. An index card of Geckskin supports up to 700 pounds on smooth surfaces like glass. Unlike other strong adhesives, Geckskin is easily removed. And perhaps its most fascinating property isn’t its stickiness, but the fact that the material is cheap and low-tech—made of nylon, caulking, and carbon fiber or cotton.

Whether it’s awesome miniature robots or mundane supermaterials, the lesson is pretty clear. Why reinvent the wheel when we can reverse engineer nature? We’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.