Adhesion and friction force coupling of gecko setal arrays: implications for structured adhesive surfaces

The extraordinary climbing ability of geckos is partially attributed to the fine structure of their toe pads, which contain arrays consisting of thousands of micrometer-sized stalks (setae) that are in turn terminated by millions of fingerlike pads (spatulae) having nanoscale dimensions. Using a surface forces apparatus (SFA), we have investigated the dynamic sliding characteristics of setal arrays subjected to various loading, unloading, and shearing conditions at different angles. Setal arrays were glued onto silica substrates and, once installed into the SFA, brought toward a polymeric substrate surface and then sheared. Lateral shearing of the arrays was initiated along both the “gripping” and “releasing” directions of the setae on the foot pads. We find that the anisotropic microstructure of the setal arrays gives rise to quite different adhesive and tribological properties when sliding along these two directions, depending also on the angle that the setae subtend with respect to the surface. Thus, dragging the setal arrays along the gripping direction leads to strong adhesion and friction forces (as required during contact and attachment), whereas when shearing along the releasing direction, both forces fall to almost zero (as desired during rapid detachment). The results and analysis provide new insights into the biomechanics of adhesion and friction forces in animals, the coupling between these two forces, and the specialized structures that allow them to optimize these forces along different directions during movement. Our results also have practical implications and criteria for designing reversible and responsive adhesives and articulated robotic mechanisms.

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