Ever Wanted to Be Spider-Man? The Pentagon Is Working on That
Spidey-sense, ropes of spider silk, walking on walls
We can all relate to Spider-Man. He’s not an alien like Superman or a billionaire like Batman. He’s got real problems, like dating and making rent. Spidey—a.k.a., Peter Parker—is just like us.
Now, the U.S. military is trying to make us more like him. With science. Minor spoilers to follow for The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Of all Spider-Man’s powers, none begs to be militarized more than his ability to scale walls. Why bother with ropes or parachuting from on high when you could just crawl right over a barrier?
Back in 2012, the Air Force formally requested a better way to climb walls. Undergraduates at Utah State University had the winning idea. Their system involves a powerful vacuum attached to suction cups.
The setup looks ridiculous and it’s loud—but it works. The Air Force wrote a check for $100,000 for a more compact prototype.
Other developers are working on more elegant solutions.
Scientists applying what’s known as the Van Der Waals force to create clothing that allows human beings to climb vertical surfaces like geckos do. Prof. Kellar Autumn from Lewis & Clark College in Oregon developed a lizard-like synthetic material two years ago. He got the idea while working on wall-scaling robots for the Pentagon.
He’s not the only one. Physicist Nicola Pugno from Turin University in Italy published a paper back in 2007 describing gloves made of carbon nanotubes that help the wearer to stick to surfaces. “We are not very far, in my opinion, from a kind of Spider-Man suit,” Pugno wrote.
There are still others. Using military funding, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is developing Gecksin, its own version of the gecko-inspired material. Engineers at BAE Systems are working on a similar substance.
It’s really only a matter of time—and not much of that—before soldiers are scaling walls like Spidey.
As for Peter Parker’s web-shooters, scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have created “nanoglue,” a cheap adhesive that sticks to itself and gains strength when heated. With refinement, “web-shooters similar to Spider-Man’s is a real possibility,” lead researcher Ganapathiraman Ramanath explained.
Spider-Man’s spidey-sense warns him of impending danger. University of Chicago student Victor Mateevisiti told New Scientist that he’s working on an outfit that does the same thing. “When someone is punching Spider-Man, he feels the sensation and can avoid it,” Mateevisiti said. “Our suit is the same concept.”
The suit contains tiny microphones that send and receive ultrasonic signals. If an object gets too close, robotic appendages built into the outfit apply pressure, compelling the wearer to move. Mateevisiti tested the suit by blindfolding participants and arming them with cardboard ninja stars to take down their attackers.
The participants hit their targets—while blindfolded—with 95-percent accuracy. As cool as that seems, it’s nothing compared to a suit the military is developing.
Toward the end of the The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the mildly villainous Harry Osborn transforms into the extremely villainous Green Goblin. He does this by injecting himself with a serum that alters his DNA, then slipping into an exoskeleton that automatically diagnoses and treats his wounds.
Exoskeletons aren’t new. Honda and Cyberdyne lease exoskeletons to hospitals in Japan. Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are both working on frightening military models. But none of the suits promise to heal their users.
The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit is the Maserati of military exoskeletons. U.S. Special Operations Command boss Adm. Bill McRaven proposed TALOS a year ago. Along with imparting extra strength, TALOS would assess minor wounds and fractures … and treat them.
No one has developed a Green Goblin-style hoverboard. Not that the military hasn’t tried.
It’s as if every single aspect of the Spider-Man mythos is becoming a reality. Thankfully, no one is splicing spider DNA, right?
Except they are. Because spider silk is amazing. Single strands of the stuff are lightweight, three times as flexible as Kevlar and five times as strong as steel. If scientists could harvest spider silk in mass quantities, they could weave strong, light and flexible clothing. It would revolutionize combat armor.
The only problem is scale. Spiders are tiny and it’s hard to farm them for silk. They just don’t make that much. Researchers have spent the last decade trying to solve the mass-production problem.
Most of the solutions involve splicing spider DNA into another organism.
Randy Lewis of Utah State University succeeded in adding spider DNA to goats. The goats’ milk comes packed with a little extra protein. Technicians can process the protein and spin silk. Lewis oversees a farm with 30 of the silk producing spider-goats.
Researchers at the University of California have attempted to splice black widow DNA into tomatoes. The goal is to extract silk protein from the seeds.
Scientists at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Wyoming took a more practical approach. They have successfully spliced spider DNA into silkworms. Their silk isn’t as strong as conventional spider silk, but it is stronger than the normal stuff.
Malcolm Fraser, who helped develop the process, told Discovery News that he’s confident he’ll be able to tweak his method to create the super strong silk everyone wants.
Mass-produced spider silk, wall-crawling soldiers and suits that sense danger. Everyday Spider-Man becomes a little more real. Let’s hope the spider-soldiers of the future realize that with great power comes great responsibility.