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These Brave Engineers Are Turning Dead Spiders Into Nightmarish ‘Necrobots’

This is really happening!

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It all started randomly one day when Faye Yap, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, was wondering if a dead spider curled up in the hallway could be utilized as a component of a robot.

While turning dead spiders into robotic grippers sounds like a scene from someone’s worst nightmare, it might actually have significant advantages. Spider legs are able to gently and securely grasp huge, delicate, and asymmetrically shaped objects without damaging them. It’s quite amazing.

Now, Yap and her colleagues at Rice University have discovered an easy way to harness dead wolf spider’s legs to unfold and efficiently grab onto objects with the help of mechanical engineer Daniel Preston.

Spiders are amazing.

They’re calling them “necrobots“—and they’ve just published a study about what it means in Advanced Science. 

A deceased spider necrobotic gripper lifts a jumper to break a circuit and switch off a light. Image credit: Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University

“We took the spider, we placed the needle in it not knowing what was going to happen,” Yap explains in a video from Rice University’s website.

“We had an estimate of where we wanted to place the needle. And when we did, it worked, the first time, right off the bat. I don’t even know how to describe it, that moment.”

No, you’re not dreaming. People are now making nightmarish zombie robot spiders!

“Spiders do not have antagonistic muscle pairs, like biceps and triceps in humans. They only have flexor muscles, which allow their legs to curl in. When they die, they lose the ability to actively pressurize their bodies,” Yap added.

“It happens to be the case that the spider, after it’s deceased, is the perfect architecture for small scale, naturally derived grippers,” Daniel Preston of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering said in a statement.

“This area of soft robotics is a lot of fun because we get to use previously untapped types of actuation and materials,” Preston explained. “The spider falls into this line of inquiry. It’s something that hasn’t been used before but has a lot of potential.”

Indeed, the biotic mechanical grabbers were found to be quite resilient, enduring roughly 1,000 trials before beginning to disintegrate. Professor Preston believes with the aid of a little coating, they could be very helpful for “pick-and-place” operations like the assembly of microelectronics.

Since the necrobots would naturally be well-camouflaged, they could also be used to capture insects in the wild, suggested lead author and Rice University Engineering PhD student Faye Yap.

However, one major drawback to the necrobots is that they start to experience wear and tear after only a couple days of use.

“We think that’s related to issues with dehydration of the joints. We think we can overcome that by applying polymeric coatings,” Preston said.

Preston and Yap are aware this may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but they said what they’re doing doesn’t qualify as “reanimation.”

“Despite looking like it might have come back to life, we’re certain that it’s inanimate, and we’re using it in this case strictly as a material derived from a once-living spider,” Preston said. “It’s providing us with something really useful.”

The video has already been viewed millions of times online in just a few days.

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