Airdate: Oct 26, 2009
Scientist: Bob Full
KSC Biomimicry - Gecko Tails
A gecko's tail is used for gripping and gliding; engineers are building its attributes into a new breed of miniature robots.
It's a glider; a stabilizer; an emergency brake. Stay tuned for the incredible tale of a tail! I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Bob Full is a professor of biology at UC Berkeley. He's using mini-treadmills, wind tunnels, and slippery walls to understand how a gecko moves and glides with the help of its tail. Referring to high-speed video footage, Bob explains.
BF: "One thing we discovered in geckos is that not only are they very good at climbing with their feet, but they're exceptionally good in using their tails. Here's a gecko running up a wall, and there's a slippery patch there. And when the gecko slips, it's pushing it against the surface. It functions as an emergency fifth leg. And so, given that they had active tails, we wondered, what if they climbed on the underside of a leaf, and they fell off? Well, we did that experiment, and here's the results. Just one swing of a tail flips them around. Well, why do they do this? They're climbing geckos tree geckos. Well, we thought they have this very active tail, and they always right themselves, so that they're in the skydiving or Superman posture. Why? So, we put them in a wind tunnel; we actually blew the air upwards. That would be similar to what would happen if the gecko would fall downwards. And we discovered that they glide beautifully well. They can swing their tail up and down, like a dolphin, and they can move forward with it. It's kind of like they're swimming in air."
Geckos are inspiring the designs of mini-robots that use mechanical tails to improve maneuverability.
Bob Full is one of the participants in the Kids' Science Challenge, our nationwide competition for third to sixth graders, made possible by the National Science Foundation. Check out KidScienceChallenge.com. You've been listening to Pulse of the Planet. I'm Jim Metzner.