To cheers, “Gecko Girl” scales Oakland building

on October 25, 2008

Story and slideshow by MAGGIE FAZELI FARD

Oct. 24 – It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No ­– “You’re Gecko Girl!” 

A rousing cheer burst forth from a dirt-covered lot in downtown Oakland this afternoon as “Gecko Girl” – a.k.a. Lyn Verinsky, an amateur rock climber and general manager of Oakland’s Great Western Power Company climbing school –  became the first person ever to scale a smooth, vertical wall using technology that mimics none other than a wily lizard.

“I have got to tell you,” said Verinsky after her descent from the sheer 12-story backside of the University of California’s Office of the President. “I did not feel graceful up there. But the claws were bomber.”

[kml_flashembed movie=”http://media.journalism.berkeley.edu/oaknorth/geckofinal.mf.081024/soundslider.swf” height=”550″ width=”580″ /]

 

The claws she referred to are “Gecko Claws,” the brainchild of scientists from UC Berkeley and Stanford University, just two of a handful of schools across the globe trying to tap into the seemingly magical, anti-gravitational powers of the gecko. 

“We’ve been working on it for a long time,” said Alan Asbeck, a PhD candidate at Stanford and one of the creators of Gecko Claws. “The idea was to make robots climb walls. First, we looked at how insects like cockroaches and ants worked…”

“If you look really closely at cockroaches’ feet, they have tiny claws,” interrupted Samson Phang, a friend of Asbeck’s along for moral support at the invention’s debut.

But geckos have a little something extra, explained Asbeck – not to mention that cockroach claws are the stuff of nightmares – and the scientists turned their attention toward the larger, cold-blooded creature that has already proven itself in the advertising world. 

Geckos, it turns out, can do more than sell insurance. They use their sharp nails to help pull themselves over rough surfaces like rocks, but it is the more than two million tiny “toe hairs” on the bottoms of their feet that allow them to scamper up, up, up or simply lounge around, hanging about effortlessly off ceilings with as little as one toe. 

Imagine the possibilities if that glomming ability were captured, suggested Asbeck, say in the form of two paddles made of “plastic, stretchy rubber and fish hooks” – 1,500 fish hooks per paddle, to be exact. According to Asbeck, the hooks respond to the amount of weight put on the paddles, each of which can support 150 pounds. The hooks are thus engaged, clasping onto any available nook and cranny in the wall face. In essence, they replicate the gecko’s mysterious hanging talent by taking the bulk of the pressure off the climber. 

“The real benefit is for search and rescue and the military,” said Asbeck. This includes sending robots into dangerous emergency operations in the wake of an earthquake or structural collapse, or into a military operation without risking human lives. The adhesion technology can also be put to human use, continued Asbeck, for example giving firefighters access to burning buildings.   

But watching the petite, muscular Varinsky slowly scale the concrete wall using two paddles full of fish hooks with her legs dangling below, it was hard to imagine burly firefighters moving fast enough to get into a flaming building before its walls burn to the ground.

Back on solid ground, Varinsky, whose Gecko Claw demo was taped for an episode of the new Discovery Channel series “Prototype This!”, gave Asbeck a few suggestions on further improving what she couldn’t stop calling “amazing” paddles. 

Make them wider, she said, and keep them as light as possible. (Each paddle weighs less than five pounds.)

And, Varinsky noted, a little dark chocolate dangling from the summit could be just the carrot-on-a-stick to get future climbers moving a little faster. 

“Climbing is fun, she said as she exchanged her climbing shoes for flip flops, still beaming from the adrenaline rush. “Climbing like a gecko is really fun. It really exceeded my expectations.”

Asbeck, too, was clearly pleased. While one of the lead researchers on the project, integrative biologist Dr. Robert Full of UC Berkeley was unable to attend the demonstration, Asbeck took plenty of photos to fill his colleague in on the afternoon’s excitement. Grinning giddily at the sight of his creation at work, Asbeck momentarily became a star-struck teenager – except that the stars in this show were a couple of artificial lizard feet. 

“This,” Asbeck said, “is so cool.”

For more information about “Prototype This!” on Discovery Channel, click here.

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1 Comment

  1. Tina on November 3, 2008 at 1:26 am

    Totally amazing. Great article.



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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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