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Friday, August 5, 2022

Why Did Scientists Turn a Dead Spider Into a Grabbing Device?

Scientists have repurposed dead spiders into a device capable of picking up and moving small objects. It is heralded as the first step in “necrobotics,” or the combination of corpses and robotics. It all began when members of Daniel Preston’s mechanical engineering lab at Rice University came across a dead spider. They wondered why the legs are always curled up. When the students learned the mechanism involved, they hypothesized a way to manipulate it in a lab setting. Apparently these are the kinds of fun hijinks mechanical engineers get up to when they should be cleaning the lab.

Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University

In case you have also wondered, the legs of dead spiders curl up because they use hydraulics instead of muscles to flex them. A chamber called the prosoma pumps fluid into each leg independently in order to move and flex the joints. So when the spider dies, the pressure releases and the legs curl in on themselves. Neat, but also gross.

Faye Yap, one of Preston’s students, devised a way to superglue a syringe into a dead spider’s prosoma chamber. Air pushed through the syringe thus opens the spider’s legs. The researchers showed that the joints held up for 1,000 repetitions and could lift 130% of the spider’s body weight. The peer-reviewed journal Advanced Science published the study, which we saw on The Verge

But why? Preston’s lab focuses on engineering projects that avoid plastics and electronics that harm the environment. This biodegradable soft robotic structure (aka dead spider) could be used for micromanipulation, as highlighted in the video above. It’s capable of small, detailed tasks according to Rice University’s press release. It’s something we’d love to see in the MacGruber series, a dead spider puppet defusing a bomb. But imagining an assembly line made up of spider-legged robots is pure nightmare fuel.

Perhaps biohybrid robots are the next step after biomimicry like the Boston Dynamics dog robots. But did they have to start with spiders?

Featured Image: Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University

Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth. 

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