By mimicking the design of a gecko's microscopic mushroom-shaped footpads, a new robot has shown an incredible ability to climb walls and ceilings. The robot, dubbed the Timeless Belt Climbing Platform (TBCP-II), has a set of treads based on gecko feet with "toe-pads" just 17 micrometers wide and 10 micrometers high that allow it to cling to any surface. The pads are thought to stick using using weak attractions between molecules called van der Waals forces, which when combined with enough surface area can hold an object in place. Because of this, the pads are dry and excellent at adhering to otherwise impassible surfaces.
Right now the robot is small and slow, weighing just 8.5 oz (240g) and only capable of traveling 3.4cm/s, but it has some incredible potential. It can scale glass, plastic and other surfaces that can't be climbed by magnets or suction cups — and it's designed to be modular so extra trains can be added to increase lifting capabilities. It's easy to see where the TBCP-II might be useful: you could send it to inspect otherwise impassible environments like deep inside nuclear reactors, at disaster zones, or up small ventilation ducts. Often technology like this is never quite arrives on the market, but this research is funding by the European Space Agency as well as the Canadian government, and with that level of backing it might actually make it.