How Scientists Are Turning Dead Spiders Into Robots That Grip

Kids who dig robot­ics usu­al­ly start out build­ing projects that mim­ic insects in both appear­ance and action.

Daniel Pre­ston, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mechan­i­cal Engi­neer­ing at Rice Uni­ver­si­ty and PhD stu­dent Faye Yap come at it from a dif­fer­ent angle. Rather than design­ing robots that move like insects, they repur­pose dead wolf spi­ders as robot­ic claws.

Very lit­tle mod­i­fi­ca­tion is required.

Yap explains that, unlike mam­mals, spi­ders lack antag­o­nis­tic mus­cles:

They only have flex­or mus­cles, which allow their legs to curl in, and they extend them out­ward by hydraulic pres­sure. When they die, they lose the abil­i­ty to active­ly pres­sur­ize their bod­ies. That’s why they curl up.

When a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly inclined human inserts a nee­dle into a deceased spider’s hydraulic pro­so­ma cham­ber, seals it with super­glue, and deliv­ers a tiny puff of air from a hand­held syringe, all eight legs will straight­en like fin­gers on jazz hands.

These necro­bi­ot­ic spi­der grip­per tools can lift around 130% of their body weight — small­er spi­ders are capa­ble of han­dling more — and each one is good for approx­i­mate­ly 1000 grips before degrad­ing.

Pre­ston and Yap envi­sion putting the spi­ders to work sort­ing or mov­ing small scale objects, assem­bling micro­elec­tron­ics, or cap­tur­ing insects in the wild for fur­ther study.

Even­tu­al­ly, they hope to be able to iso­late the move­ments of indi­vid­ual legs, as liv­ing spi­ders can.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ly, these necro­bi­ot­ic parts have a major advan­tage in that they’re ful­ly biodegrad­able. When they’re no longer tech­no­log­i­cal­ly viable, they can be com­post­ed. (Humans can be too, for that mat­ter…)

The idea is as inno­v­a­tive as it is off­beat. As a soft robot­ics spe­cial­ist, Pre­ston is always seek­ing alter­na­tives to hard plas­tics, met­als and elec­tron­ics:

We use all kinds of inter­est­ing new mate­ri­als like hydro­gels and elas­tomers that can be actu­at­ed by things like chem­i­cal reac­tions, pneu­mat­ics and light. We even have some recent work on tex­tiles and wearables…The spi­der falls into this line of inquiry. It’s some­thing that has­n’t been used before but has a lot of poten­tial.”

Con­quer any lin­ger­ing arachno­pho­bia by read­ing Yap and Pre­ston’s research arti­cle,  Necro­bot­ics: Biot­ic Mate­ri­als as Ready-to-Use Actu­a­tors, here.

Hat Tip to Open Cul­ture read­er Dawn Yow.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

200-Year-Old Robots That Play Music, Shoot Arrows & Even Write Poems: Watch Automa­tons in Action

MIT Cre­ates Amaz­ing Self-Fold­ing Origa­mi Robots & Leap­ing Chee­tah Robots

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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