Researchers Turn Dead Spiders Into 'Necrobotic' Grippers

See how engineers at Rice University transformed wolf spiders into necrobots.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Blue gloves hands insert a needle into a dead spider on a white tray.
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Blue gloves hands insert a needle into a dead spider on a white tray.

Researchers inserted a needle into a dead spider to operate its legs like a gripper.

Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

Grippers made from dead spiders. For some, this might sound like a horror movie. For others, it's a fascinating mashup of robotics and the natural world.  

A team of engineers at Rice University worked out how to reanimate (after a fashion) the legs of dead spiders. This isn't a Frankenstein's monster sort of situation. The researchers used a needle and air to activate the spider legs, mimicking how the appendages work in living spiders. Because the spiders are dead and are used in a robotic fashion, the engineers call this "necrobotics." 

Mechanical engineering graduate student Faye Yap is the lead author of a paper on the spider project published in the journal Advanced Science this week. "It happens to be the case that the spider, after it's deceased, is the perfect architecture for small scale, naturally derived grippers," said co-author Daniel Preston in a Rice statement on Monday.

It's one thing to read about this project and another to see it in action. Fortunately (or not depending on how you feel about all this), Rice delivered a video that explains the process for creating the necrobots and shows how it works.

When alive, spiders use blood to extend and contract their legs through a hydraulic process. The researchers euthanized wolf spiders, inserted a needle into the chamber of the body that controls the legs, sealed it with glue and then used air to trigger the opening and closing of the legs. 

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The necrobots are able to grip and hold more than their own weight.

Preston Innovation Laboratory/Rice University

The gripper spiders were able to lift more than their own body weight, including another spider and small objects like parts on a circuit board.

The team sees some advantages to necrobotic spiders. The little grippers can grab irregular objects, blend into their environment and also biodegrade over time. The researchers hope to try this method out with smaller spiders. They also plan to work out how to trigger the legs individually.

As this work advances, I'm looking forward to a new type of Transformers. Necrobots, reach out!