The Z-Man Program paddles allow soldiers to climb walls, gecko style, or like Spider-Man, thanks to funding of research by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Amazing paddles have been developed by scientists working at Draper Laboratories of Cambridge, Mass., funded by DARPA, which enable soldiers weighing 200+ pounds and carrying a load of 50 additional pounds to scale a glass wall that’s 25 feet in height.
The paddles, which a a part of the Z-Man Program, allow a man to do this because of the polymer microstructure technology that’s behind their design and construction. The Z-man program came about as a method to prepare soldiers to more effectively and easily navigate potentially dangerous urban environments.
Also, the Z-Man Program has as one of its goals to develop climbing aids based on studying how animals climb in nature, and then reverse engineering how they do it so that soldiers can “scale vertical walls constructed from typical building materials.”
The paddles can serve to let soldiers gain the high ground, and scout further distances from the higher perspective they can achieve by climbing up solid glass walls. Also, unlike using ropes and ladders, soldiers don’t have to take turns using the equipment. According to a statement by DARPA, “the first climber often takes the highest risk” when ropes or ladders are used.
The main source of inspiration for the researchers involved with developing the paddles were geckos, which are renowned for their ability to climb up a variety of vertical surfaces, including glass ones, in search of insects or to evade other animals.
According to a statement released by DARPA, the scientists working on the Z-Man Program project accomplished the mimicking of how geckos climb by using polymer microstructure technology. Geckos have such high adhesive pressure in their toes that “a gecko can hang its entire body by one toe.” The animals have microscopic “stalk-like setae” on their toes that gives them “adhesive pressures of 15-30 pounds per square inch for each limb.” Their feet are covered with microscopic bristles, which are, in turn, topped with spatulae — small adhesive fibers. The combination allows geckos to stick to almost any surface.
With the feet and toes of geckos having such large surface areas for their size, a weak intermolecular bond is created that is strong enough to permit them to travel up walls made of practically any substance — even glass. The scientists funded by DARPA scaled up the dimensions and tried to approximate the feet and toes of geckos with the design they came up with for the paddles.
Perhaps the program funded by DARPA got called the Z-Man Program because Marvel comics already had the name the X-Man taken. Tests are still ongoing, and the paddles are still being further perfected. The technology, which came about through the attempts of scientists to reverse engineer the feet and toes of geckos, will soon allow soldiers both to gain the high ground in circumstances where it’s needed, and to more easily and efficiently navigate and fight whatever enemy they might face in potentially dangerous urban environments.
Written by: Douglas Cobb