Soldiers and spies of the future could be given special "Spider-Man" suits, enabling them to climb up sheer surfaces and even stick to the ceiling, according to a leading British engineering firm.

BAE Systems has developed a material that closely mimics the feet of a gecko lizard, which can scale vertical glass and other slippery surfaces with ease.

The research is still at an early stage but the firm said "infantry climbing suits" could be made out of the material, giving the troops gecko-like abilities.

A "government organisation" is also interested in using the material for a "particular covert application" connected to surveillance, according to a BAE Systems spokesman.

The gecko’s foot is covered with tiny hairs, which are so small they effectively merge with molecules of things that they touch. This produces an incredibly strong bond in most directions, but one which can also be easily peeled off.

Dr Jeff Sargent, a research physicist at BAE Systems’ Advanced Technology Centre in Bristol, said: "We wanted to mimic this ability.

"We recognised that a synthetic material could have tremendous engineering potential not only in our own aerospace and defence businesses, but also in other commercial applications."

There have been other attempts to recreate a gecko’s foot artificially, but BAE Systems believes its "Synthetic Gecko" material is the closest yet to the natural version and would also be cheap to produce. A square metre is capable of holding an average family car off the ground.

Military analyst Stuart Crawford, a retired lieutenant-colonel, said climbing suits would be of use to Britain’s elite soldiers.

"Without getting into comic-book fantasy, there would not appear to be a widespread application for infantry soldiers being able to climb up walls of plate glass, but there would definitely be specialist applications for organisations like the SAS or SBS," he said.

"It would be very useful in hostage rescue situations. Rather than putting a ladder up the wall or abseiling down like in the Iranian Embassy siege, the guys and girls could walk or climb up and kick in the window. I think it is quite an exciting development."

The firm admitted it was "still a long way off achieving the performance of a gecko – for example sticking to dirty, wet or rough surfaces is a major issue, along with durability".

A gecko can cling to smooth surfaces - and so...

But Dr Sargent, who is working on the material with colleague Sajad Haq, said: "We have made a small amount of this material and we have demonstrated that it will stick on glass surfaces to demonstrate that it’s got some potential.

"We have demonstrated we can do multiple attachments with this material – you can stick it down once and stick it down again. Having a Spider-Man glove is a long way down the road, but in principle, you might have something like that."

In addition to the climbing suits, the firm said it would be possible to use the material to make climbing and crawler robots for inspecting and repairing planes and structures.

Such robots currently use suction and vacuum systems, but the gecko material would be smaller and weigh less.

"Timescales could be as long as about eight to 20 years, but may be sooner for a particular covert application we are investigating," a spokesman for the firm said.

"That particular application is for a government organisation and sits within the field of surveillance."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office reluctantly issued a standard response, when asked about the possibility of MI5 agents or Special Branch officers wearing Spider-Man suits. "We’d have to say we wouldn’t comment on the operations of the security services," she said.