Forget ladders, ropes, grappling hooks and cherry-pickers, if you need to go vertical just do as a Gekko does. Inspired by the climbing prowess of its natural namesake, the "gekkomat" - meaning "automatic lizard-climber" - is an autonomous machine that enables the wearer to traverse walls, ceilings and overhangs by using intuitive movements and without drawing on external energy sources.
The idea took shape when gekkomat team head Gerald Winkler undertook an Industrial Design assignment entitled "Up and About" at the Stuttgart National Academy of Visual Arts. As a Master of Engineering, Winkler took the assignment literally and applied both disciplines to create the gekkomat concept. Developed over several years of research and testing, the fully functional prototype uses vacuum and friction principles to "stick" to a wide range of surfaces including glass, metal and rougher surfaces such as concrete, plasterboard and some rock.
The system transforms normal compressed air from tanks carried on the user's back into a powerful vacuum via electronically controlled venturi-nozzles in the "foot-pads". An on-board computer constantly monitors and adjusts the pressure in each pad and ensures that at least three remain pressurised at any given time. A display on each pad also provides information on vacuum levels plus pneumatic and electrical energy reserves and as further safety back-up, warning alarms are activated if a minimum vacuum level is not achieved within two seconds of placing the pad. To move around the user simply pulls upward on the relevant limb and the suction is automatically released. This makes movement using the device more intuitive and natural so it's easier to learn.
It's not just for wiry rock-climbing types. The gekkomat can carry a ton of load capacity and a tank full of compressed air delivers a climbing time of up to two hours. The unit itself weighs about 25 kg and the tanks are similar in size to the ones worn by fire fighters. Hands can be freed-up for other tasks once at elevation using stay ropes connected to a chest belt.
The gekkomat prototype - pictured scaling the walls of a power plant in Germany - has hundreds of potential applications in situations where climbing is necessary to reach a point because of restricted access: paramedical and rescue operations, building construction, restoration and cleaning, paramilitary and police deployment plus a range of load carrying purposes. There is also strong interest in using the gekkomat purely for fun and recreation according to Winkler, who is currently negotiating possible reproduction of the patented technology for this market segment with several US companies.
No commercial unit is yet available but it might not be long before "gekkonauts" start appearing on vertical surfaces around our cities and given the exhilaration of abseiling from an overhang or clinging to a rock-face, it's easy to see the attraction. Winkler is also working on another experimental prototype that will adhere to brick and sandstone as well as the "laddermaster" concept that aims to apply gekko technology in providing a stable base for high-rise ladders.