Scientists turned dead spiders into undead zombie robots


If you think spiders are scary when they’re still alive, wait until you see what they can do when they’re dead. A team of engineers at Rice University in Texas successfully resuscitated dead spiders to serve as mechanical grippers.

Correct. As proof that we have permanently strayed from God’s light, the team published

a study of their Frankensteinian experiment in Advanced Science on July 26, in which they were able to restrain the legs of a dead spider with air bubbles. The authors described the creation as “necrobotics” and believe it could be used for a variety of purposes, including trapping insects and even assembling microelectronics.

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“Previous research has focused on bio-inspired systems, where researchers look to nature for inspiration and mimic the physical properties of living organisms in engineered systems,” Faye Yap, a mechanical engineer at Rice and lead author of the paper, told The Daily Beast in an email. She later added, “Necrobotics, on the other hand, uses biotic materials, which are non-living materials derived from once-living organisms, such as the necrobotic gripper derived from a spider in our work.”

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The team was inspired to create their hair-raising creation after one day encountering a dead spider moving things around their lab. After noticing how it curled when it died, they found that spider’s legs don’t have muscles like humans, but instead rely on hydraulic pressure to move their limbs.

“We understand that a lot of people are put off by the sight of a spider, but from a technical standpoint, the spider’s mechanism of motion is very interesting,” Yap said. “It definitely justifies taking a closer look at these creatures and learning more about them.”

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The team decided to see if they really could check the legs. The mechanism was pretty simple: Yap stuffed a syringe into a dead wolf spider’s internal hydraulic chamber and added some super glue to hold it in place. Then she added a small amount of air and the spider’s legs opened immediately. Voila! You have the world’s most cursed grapple tool.

Rice University engineers used a small amount of air pressure to turn dead spiders into necrobotic grabs.

Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University

While crawling on the skin, the necrobotic grabs were very effective at picking things up. The wolf spiders used in the experiment are capable of lifting more than 130 percent of their own body weight, meaning the zombified grabs could grab objects much heavier than themselves.

The team also found that their new tool was also surprisingly durable. One spin could even last 1,000 open-close cycles before showing signs of wear. But Faye said they eventually “plan to incorporate thin polymer coating materials to extend the life of the necrobotic gripper.”

Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Rice and co-author of the paper, told The Daily Beast that while the experiment has raised a few eyebrows, the general public has “been supportive.”

A gripper is used to lift a jumper and break a circuit on an electronic breadboard, turning off an LED.

Brandon Martin/Rice University

“[The] typical reaction is a brief period of surprise, then an ‘a-ha’ moment when the underlying mechanism and technical contributions of our work become apparent,” Preston said. “We hope this research will spark new ideas about how we can source and use biotic materials for robotics applications in a respectful and sustainable way.”

Preston added that the team hopes to eventually test the concept on smaller spiders, which can carry an even heavier load relative to their body weight and mass. The spider grabs can also be used to catch other creepy crawlers.

“Because the necrobotic grab has inherent compliance and camouflage capabilities, we envision that we can deploy it in scientific fieldwork,” Faye said. “For example, to catch and collect small insects and other living specimens without damaging them.”

Listen, this is undoubtedly creepy and straight out of our nightmares. But the necrobots have many useful uses. Stepping back from the horror factor, it’s pretty cool in a meaty sci-fi way. Let’s hope they stick to spiders… and not something bigger.


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