Necrobotics – repurposing spider corpses

Countless human innovations are inspired by nature, from umbrellas inspired by giant lily leaves, hook and loop fasteners inspired by tiny hooks on cockleburs, sharkskin-inspired swimsuits to termite den-inspired office buildings. Biomimicry is a re-emerging field with a long history; its key concept is that nature operates on the principles of economy and efficiency without generating waste. 

According to Janine Benyus, the author of the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” which popularised the idea of biomimicry, nature can be seen as a model, which could be imitated or used for inspiration of designs, processes and strategies to solve complex human challenges.  

In the field of soft robotics, research scientists and engineers studied the locomotion of many terrestrial and aquatic animals such as salamanders, snakes, and ostriches to build bio-inspired robots

Not until recently, has the use of corpses, or dead organisms, been explored. It has been termed ‘necrobotics’, which is the use of biotic materials as components of robots. Researchers from Rice University used wolf spider corpses to act as a gripper that can grip up to 130% of its own mass. 

Faye Yap, the first author of the article, saw a curled-up spider in the hallway and was curious about why spiders curl up when they die. Spiders do not have antagonistic muscles like biceps and triceps in humans. They only have flexor muscles, which allow their legs to curl in, and they rely on the hydraulic system to extend their legs. When a spider dies, it loses the ability to pressurise its body and therefore curls up. 

Faye found a way to leverage this mechanism, by injecting air through a needle connected to a syringe that tapped into the spider hydraulic chamber, known as prosoma, to control the movement of the spider legs to grip things. The lab found the spider corpse was fairly robust and could stand close to 1,000 open-close cycles. 

Minor wear and tear were observed when reaching 1,000 open-close cycles, possibly due to the dehydration of joints according to the authors. Joints that are dehydrated would be more brittle and vulnerable to mechanical fracture over time. The authors then tested applying beeswax to the dead spiders and they found the uncoated spiders had a 17 times decrease in mass compared to the coated spiders.

Their work is currently a proof of concept with many future applications. Daniel Preston of Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering mentioned the potential applications in “pick-and-place tasks” such as the assembly of microelectronics. The advantages of using biotic materials include biodegradability and camouflaging capabilities, which could be deployed in nature in an eco-friendly manner. 

Necrobotics is a new and emerging technology, and its future applications and implications are yet to be explored. Research into necrobotics can have profound impacts on several fields as necrobotics challenges us to reconsider our relationship with mortality and the role technology plays in shaping our perceptions of life, death, and the legacy we leave behind.

Image Credit: Ivan Ivanovic via unsplash

Image Description: Image of a yellow spider on its web with patterns on its abdomen and cephalothorax