Mission Impossible: Gecko Protocol

Screw car insurance; have you ever wanted to scale your bedroom walls with ease? Well, be sure to stick around, because science just might have the answers you’re looking for.

Oscar Petrov
7 min readOct 23, 2020

We all know that Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa—in the espionage series, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol—with his revolutionary sticky gloves, but the question remains:

Is such a concept that far off from reality?

Image from film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol taken from The Kim Newman Web Site

Surprisingly, no! In fact, the technology is already hitting the markets!

Well….. sort of.

The Sticky Situation…

For the longest time, scientists had been plagued by the unanswered phenomenon that explained how geckos were able to scurry along gravity-defying surfaces. More specifically, they were clueless as to what special mechanisms geckos had in their feet which allowed these extraordinarily nimble reptiles to scale surfaces effortlessly.

Some researchers believed they had some sort of sticky-secretive properties that allowed them to grasp onto these difficult surfaces. But that just didn’t make any sense since geckos are able to move their feet just as easily as if they were walking on top of flat planes (gravitationally adept surfaces). Not to mention, geckos don’t leave any sticky residues behind!

To find the answers we’re looking for, it’s important that we take a closer look…

Photo of Gecko spatulae by Dae Sasitorn from MedicalImages.com

Woah, what’s that? Looks like the bristles of a toothbrush if you ask me! But wait, let’s look at it from an even different perspective…




Wait for it…..




Super epic photo of a Gecko’s foot from Cosmos Magazine; Credit: Yi Song


Well, now that we have a bigger picture idea (Literally!!!) of what gecko feet look like, we can finally begin to answer some questions… it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of it all — the science if you will.

Following decades of research and utter cluelessness, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that scientists finally discovered the fantastical phenomenon that explained these Gecko abilities; and the answer lay in… Van der Waals’ forces!

Meme created using two images (1; 2) through ImgFlip.com

Van der Waals’ Forces

Ok… so what are Van der Waal’s forces? Sounds super fancy… 👁 👄 👁

Van der Waal’s forces are super-duper small intermolecular forces between atoms or molecules. These forces are unlike ionic or covalent bonds in the sense that they are not formed as a result of chemical bonds, and thus they are incredibly weak in comparison. However, while Van der Waals’ forces may be weak all on their own, they are additive, meaning these forces are much stronger when they work together.

“Ok, so you said a bunch of fancy words that I totally remember from Biology in high school… what does that even mean?”

To think big, we need to go small… Like really small!

Under the microscope

Each gecko has upwards of roughly 14,000 setae inside of their little, bulbous toe-pads, and each seta is comprised of up to 1000 even smaller bristle-like components known as spatulae That’s what you saw in the image not long ago… you know, the one that looked like a murky toothbrush after being used to scrub the floors of an entire house.

Gecko feet under a microscope from RoyalSocietyPublishing.org

And thus, by understanding these microscopic spatulae — which are the actual, indivisible components responsible for administering these ‘weak electromagnetic attractions with other surfaces — in gecko feet, one can begin to see how such weak forces add up on a more macroscopic scale.

14,000 setae x 1000 spatulae ≈ 14,000,000 spatulae!

But how does it really work?

Geckos engage their adhesive-like properties through a two-step process:

  1. First, they press down their microscopic hairs onto a surface.
  2. Then, they latch onto these surfaces with “a shearing action.”

In doing so, geckos protract their setae — typically a result of a mechanical trigger that is activated when these geckos begin to feel that they’re sliding down a surface because of gravity — ultimately allowing geckos to literally stick to any surface. By simply relaxing this tension, geckos are able to easily break free with their foot and continue scurrying along.

Fun fact: Gecko’s can travel on virtually ALL SURFACES except Teflon — Teflon is basically a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene known as Polytetrafluoroethylene Um, what? I mean it’s super sticky-resistant, which is why we put it on pots and pans for cooking purposes…

Let’s put it all together!

So, basically geckos get their unique ability of being able to scurry along gravity-defying surfaces through the use of incredibly tiny hairs on their feet known as setae. This is put into action during an oversimplified two-step process, and as a result, geckos are able to effectively latch onto any surface as they so choose… all because the combined strength of Van Der Waals’ forces is strong enough to allow geckos to walk on walls. Wow!

Gecko Image from Wallpaper Blogspot

What does this mean for humans?

Scientists in recent events have been taking inspiration from these adhesive-like properties of geckos — which are so incomparable to modern day normal adhesives, like tape or even super glue—and have been implementing these concepts into a wide variety of applications.

Ranging from ideas of mass production to implementing such concepts for NASA to use all the way in space (literally, Space!), gecko-adhesive technology really is a game changer for humans as we know it and it’s applications are likely to be quite revolutionary in the coming years.

Here’s a little device that a team at Georgia Tech built which uses a synthetic polymer to pick up objects against the force of gravity.

A team at Georgia Tech discovers a “Velcro-like way” of using gecko-inspired adhesives. (Watch at 2x speed) Full article: here

And back in 2014, Stanford engineers were actually able replicate this phenomenon into human-like terms.

Stanford engineers create gecko-inspired climbing device to literally “scale” a wall. Full article: here

It’s crazy how far people will go if it means that they can get one step closer to literally becoming Spiderman. While that’s clearly not the prime motivation for dedicating effort into this field of research, such a concept does not actually seem so far off from reality, despite how ridiculous it may seem.

It’s so incredible to think about how humans are using nature as inspiration to create tools that can help us accomplish tasks even more efficiently. If you think about it, these organisms literally had upwards of 3.7 billion years to perfect the things they do—whether that be walking, swimming, flying, digging, and so much more—and humans are just starting to look to these fascinating creatures to help us in our own lives. I don’t know about you folks, but I can’t wait see to what more humans are able to come up with, and maybe you’ll be the one to lead that next revolutionary team. Yes, I’m talking to you!

Bonus Content: Only for readers who made it this far… 😉

  • You’ve already made it this far, so you might as well spend another 38 seconds of your day watching this incredibly amazing video of a gecko gracefully rampaging through the water. You won’t regret it!
  • Designer and Architect Neri Oxman—who takes inspiration from nature and uses it in such powerful, life changing ways—shares her experiences with nature in a fascinating Ted Talk.
Neri Oxman brilliantly leverages Design and Architecture through the animal kingdom to solve problems, among other concepts!

Editors Note:

For those that have made it this far, I really hope you enjoyed the article in its entirety. If you’re interested in learning about other cool content, don’t forget to give the article a clap or two and smash that follow button so you can catch more of my articles in the future 😉

If you have any questions, comments, disputes, or anything of the sort, do feel free to reach out to me at my email: oscarpetrov00@gmail.com



Oscar Petrov

A curious manifestation of billions of exploding neurons. I like to think about brains + the universe. Also passionate about ethics, philosophy + human rights.