Perhaps no other topic to date better fits the dual classification of “science” and “horror” better than today’s case.
If you’re like us, you’ve never before encountered the term “necrobotic.” You’re not behind the curve; this phrase is a neologism. The prefix “necro” is from the Latin for “death, corpse, or dead tissue.” The suffix comes from “robotic.”
As frightening as death robots might sound, we’re not dealing with undead metal scourges here. We’re dealing with something I consider far more nightmarish: dead spider robots.
The two humans pictured above are mechanical engineers at Rice University.
Daniel Preston runs a lab specializing in “soft robotic systems” that utilize “nontraditional materials.” Instead of the normal robotic materials – metals, electronics, plastics – they employ hydrogels, elastomers, and textiles. Preston noted, “We use all kinds of interesting new materials…that can be actuated by things like chemical reactions, pneumatics, and light.”
Faye Yap describes the beginning of this macabre episode: “We were moving stuff around in the lab and we noticed a curled up spider at the edge of the hallway,” she said. “We were really curious as to why spiders curl up after they die.”
The human muscular system relies on antagonistic pairs to function. One muscle will contract to move bones and body parts but cannot push the bone back into its original location. A second muscle takes care of that operation, forming an antagonistic pair. Spiders do not have muscle pairs. Their design works on a flexion system, in which they can curl their legs inward. To move their legs outward, spiders actually employ hydraulic pressure. When they die, their ability to pressurize their legs goes kaput, so their legs curl.
A fact that I see as an interesting tidbit of natural trivia, Yap and Preston saw as an opportunity to extend their definition of “soft robotics.”
So, they took spider corpses and began to use their anatomy to make miniature, creepy claw-game grabbers. Inside a spider’s body is a prosoma, a hydraulic chamber filled with valves that allow them to control each leg. When deceased, all the valves open. The researchers were able to insert a needle into the prosoma and apply some superglue. Then they could inject air through a syringe into the needle. Presto: spider pseudo-reanimation.
Preston and Yap began to test their new machines. They discovered they could lift 130% of the dead spider’s weight with the necrobotic grippers. They could open and close the legs about a thousand times before the physical system started to degrade. The researchers believe they can overcome this limitation by devising some sort of hydration coating.
OK, so you’ve created a hydraulic gripper out of dead spiders. Now what?
Preston believes this new discovery could be used in applications he calls “micro-manipulations.” The assembly of microelectronics often requires significant repetition. Necrobotics offer a potential solution that happens to be biodegradable, reducing electronic waste from normal robotics. He believes they could also be utilized to capture smaller insects in the wild since the spiders would provide natural camouflage.
Yap joked, “before I started my Ph.D., my mom actually told me, ‘you’re probably going to work with something hydraulic-related.’ And this is somewhat related to hydraulics!” Just what every parent wants to hear, “I’m turning dead spiders into robots! At least it’s related to hydraulics!”
Will these necrobotic grippers ever become pragmatic technology? Hard to say. Will these Lovecraftian beings somehow rise up to take over the world? For the arachnophobes out there, this possibility seems far more likely.
Thank you, Rice University, for making my dream-times a bit more uncomfortable.
Further Reading and Exploration
Rice engineers get a grip with ‘necrobotic’ spiders – Rice University
Scientists Are Turning Dead Spider Legs Into Grippers, Which Is Definitely Nightmare Fuel – Popular Mechanics
Inflating spider corpse creates robotic claw game of nightmares – Ars Technica