Why bother designing your own robots when you can reuse the nature you created?
This was the thought process behind a research project by engineers at Rice University who successfully turned dead spiders into robotic claws. The scientists have dubbed their new field of research “microbiology” and say it could create cheap, efficient, and biodegradable alternatives to current robotic systems.
So why spiders? Well, while humans move their limbs using pairs of antagonistic muscles, such as the biceps and triceps, spiders’ legs only have one flexor muscle that pulls the leg inward. This is opposed to the hydraulic system: a chamber in the center of the spider’s body (known as a prosoma) that pushes fluid out to open the leg, with separate valves allowing the animal to control each limb independently. By the way, this is why spiders always curl up when they die; There is no pressure in the system to oppose the flexor leg muscles.
Armed with this knowledge, a team from Rice University discovered that they could artificially operate this hydraulic system simply by inserting a needle into a dead spider’s prosoma, pushing air in and out to open and close the spider’s legs like an arcade claw machine.
You can watch a video of their work in action below:
Daniel Preston of George R. press release. Spiders can lift more than 130 percent of their body weight and go through 1,000 open-close cycles before the joints degenerate.
A team from Rice University led by graduate student Faye Yap Publish a paper describing their work in the magazine advanced sciences. In it, they note that humanity has a long history of reusing the remains of dead organisms for new uses – from animal skins worn as clothing to bones being sharpened to arrowheads and tools. In this context, turning a dead spider into a robotic catch is not as strange as it might first seem.
Scientists also note that robotics often draw inspiration from the natural world, imitating The sticky surface of gecko feet or fish tail ripples, for example. But they said why copy when you can steal? Especially when Mother Nature has really done the hard work of developing effective mechanisms through millions of years of evolution.
As they wrote in the paper, “The concept of ponytails proposed in this work takes advantage of unique designs created by nature that can be complex or even artificially impossible to replicate.”
The group ordered the test subjects from a biological supply company, Reports Gizmodo, which created some problems for colleagues with arachnophobia. As Preston of Rice Publishing said, “One of the employees working in our front office doesn’t really like spiders. So we had to call the front desk whenever we got another delivery so we could use it on the project and give them some kind of alert.”
The work is essentially a proof of concept for now, but Preston said it could have many future applications. “There are a lot of pick-and-place tasks that we can look at, repetitive tasks like sorting or moving things at these small scales, and maybe even things like assembling microelectronics,” he said in a press release.
Another use, Yap said, might be to collect specimens from animals in nature, as the spider’s snatcher is “inherently camouflaged.”
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