Scientists Are Turning Dead Spiders Into Zombie Robots And It's Creepy AF

spider robot
Mechanical engineers at Rice University have devised a method of turning dead spiders into tiny gripping robots. The repurposed spiders are being used as mechanical grippers that can easily blend into natural environments while hoisting objects that outweigh them.

When you think about a group of engineers taking dead spiders and using them as tiny robots, you may wonder why. What on Earth would possess any human to want to bring such a creepy crawler back to life in such a way? It turns out that these tiny creatures contain the perfect architecture for small scale, naturally derived grippers.

In an open-access study in Advanced Science, Daniel Preston and Faye Yap from Rice University have outlined the process of harnessing a spider's physiology as a first step toward what they call "necrobotics."

Yap, a graduate student and lead author of the study, saw a dead spider curled up in her hallway and began wondering if it could be used as a robotics component. So, while many are just happy the spider is dead, Yap saw potential.

spider experiment
Image Credit: Rice University/Daniel Preston and Faye Yap

The idea fit perfectly into Preston's lab, as it specializes in soft robotic systems that often use nontraditional materials. "We use all kinds of interesting new materials like hydrogels and elastomers that can be actuated by things like chemical reactions, pneumatics and light," he remarked. "We even have some recent work on textiles and wearables (please tell me I am not wearing a dead spider right now)."

Preston says that soft robotics "is a lot of fun" due to the fact they are able to use previously untapped types of actuation and material. He says that a spider falls into this type of category, but has not been utilized even though it has a lot of potential.

Spiders differ from mammals, in that they use hydraulics to move their limbs. A chamber close to their heads contracts to send blood to limbs, thus forcing them to extend. As the pressure is relieved, the legs contract.

The type of spider that was used in experiments were wolf spiders. Tests showed that they were reliable in lifting more than 130% of their own body weight, and at times more. The researchers were able to make the tiny grippers manipulate a circuit board, move other objects, and even lift another spider. Oddly enough, the larger the spider, the smaller the load it can carry in comparison to its body weight. Because of this, future research will probably include spiders smaller than that of the wolf spider, according to Preston.

"We took the spider, we placed the needle in it not knowing what was going to happen," Yap said in a YouTube video explaining their research. "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," she added.

In the paper in Advanced Science, the researchers commented, "The concept of necrobotics proposed in this work takes advantage of unique designs created by nature that can be complicated or even impossible to replicate naturally."

Yap and Preston believe the research could be applied to micro-manipulation, which could include things such as micro-electronic devices. One of the drawbacks, however, is that the dead spider begins to lose its grip after about two days (1,000 open-and-close cycles). They believe it is because the joints are becoming dehydrated, and can be overcome by applying polymeric coatings.

So there you have it, scientists are using dead spiders to pick up tiny objects. We'll stick to cheap pick-up tools, thank you very much.