Disney's New Robot Scales Walls…Like Spidey

If Spider-Man had a robot sidekick, this would be it.

A new four-wheeled bot named VertiGo looks like a remote-controlled car that a kid might build. But the little machine can drive vertically, straight up walls.

Researchers at Disney Research Zurich worked together with mechanical engineering students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) to design and build the gravity-defying bot. The robot's front wheels are steerable — like the front wheels of an automobile — which lets the person who controls the bot change its direction as it zooms around. But it is VertiGo's two propellers, which can be controlled independently of each other, that enable the bot to scale buildings without falling to the ground. [The 6 Strangest Robots Ever Created]

To climb a wall, the bot's rear propeller must be tilted outward behind it in such a way so that the thrust (propulsive force) from the propeller pushes the bot toward the wall. At the same time, the bot's front propeller applies thrust downward, pushing the bot upward and enabling it to go from a horizontal position to a vertical position, according to the researchers who built VertiGo. (You can see this process in action at the 25-second mark in the video above.)

It's not clear why Disney decided to build a wall-climbing robot, but in a statement outlining the bot's functionality, the researchers noted that VertiGo's ability to drive on both floors and walls "extends the ability of robots to travel through urban and indoor environments." The researchers also said the robot can keep its footing when traversing rough surfaces, like brick walls.

The body, or chassis, of the bot is made of carbon fiber, while its more complex parts — like the wheel- suspension system and the wheels — are made of 3D-printed parts and carbon rods. The chassis also houses the robot's electronic components, which include the computer that allows the person operating VertiGo to control the bot in the same way as a remote-controlled car. The computer receives data from onboard sensors (like accelerometers and gyroscopes), as well as infrared distance sensors that estimate the bot's orientation in space.

The computer then uses this data, along with input from the person controlling the bot, to direct the motors that power the bot's propellers and wheels. In other words, the person controlling the bot doesn't have to figure out exactly how to tilt the propellers to get the bot to stay put on the wall; the robot can figure that out for itself.

Although the video only shows the robot zooming over the ground and climbing a flat wall, the researchers said the little bot might also be able to drive on the ceiling. So VertiGo might be able to keep up with Spider-Man, should the two ever get together.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo @techEpalermo. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.