Although we’ve seen scientists find new ways to use insects after they’ve died, it’s hard to imagine any group of researchers surpassing the work of a Rice University team that transformed wolf spiders without life in “necrobotic” claws. Yes, you read that right – and no, you’re not the only one with a sudden phantom itch.
How did we come here? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s start with an anatomy lesson. Unlike human beings, spiders do not have opposing pairs of muscles to move their limbs. Instead, they rely on blood pressure and the flexor muscles that allow their legs to curve inward. A chamber in their head contracts to send blood out, and this hydraulic pressure allows a spider to extend its legs. It is for this reason that arachnids curl up when they die. Their heart stops beating and they lose the ability to pressurize their body.
Incidentally, the sight of a dead spider inspired the Rice University team to start exploring the possibility of using one as a gripper, and they’ve been working on the project since 2019. “This area of soft robotics is great fun because we can use previously untapped types of actuation and materials,” said Assistant Professor of Engineering Daniel Preston. “The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.
Once Professor Preston’s team figured out how spiders move their legs, it was simple to turn them into robots that could lift more than their own weight. The procedure involved sticking a needle into the chamber of the arachnid’s prosoma and securing it with some superglue. A portable syringe or laboratory equipment attached to the other end allowed the researchers to supply a small amount of air into the cavity, which in turn would cause the dead spider to instantly extend its legs. The resulting mechanism was suitable for about 1,000 opening and closing cycles.
According to Preston, potential use cases include microelectronics assembly and insect catching. As Tech Crunch points out, it’s hard to imagine anyone selling necrobotic wolf spiders on a large scale. But if nothing else comes out of the project, at least you know how spiders move their limbs. The next time you see a dead person, you can tell this fun fact to a friend or family member. I know I will.
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