Today’s Solutions: February 08, 2023

Spiders surprise us, they creep us out, and yet some of them might hold secrets to our technological future. While they may infiltrate our homes, we could learn a thing or two from these eight-legged animals.

We’ve previously reported on the versatility of spider silk and the potential of deadly spider venom to treat damage from heart attacks. Now we wanted to bring you another way spiders’ capabilities might lend humans a helping hand, by uncovering the secrets of how they take flight to revolutionize flight technology.

What enables spiders to fly?

Spiders don’t have wings, yet they have the incredible ability to take to the skies. Scientists previously knew that the few short threads of protein-rich silk they expel out of their glands assist their flight, although they were unsure of exactly how they achieved such distances in the air.

Biologists used to think that swirling warm air was what enabled spiders to fly. A new theory brings strong evidence that spiders can take flight also thanks to the use of electric fields, in a process called “ballooning”.

How did they prove electric involvement?

Studies show that arachnids add a slight charge to their webs, which helps them capture their prey and possibly catch pollutants. The presence of these webs is, however, difficult to measure given their tiny size. 

Researchers from Notre Dame University-Louaize and the University of California got around this issue by combining evidence from previous studies. They then created an algorithm to factor in influencing variables for spider flight. These included distribution of charge, atmospheric electric fields, and air resistance under changing conditions.

This experimental data confirmed electric currents would indeed influence flight patterns. The algorithm also revealed that it is possible for larger species to float on top of hot rising air currents. “We think that, at least for small spiders, the electric field, without any help from upward air currents, can cause ballooning,” Charbel Habchi, one of the primary authors, told Physics.

Future research on spiders

Researchers used simulations to uncover how they weave their intricate webs. Understanding how such a small organism with a rudimentary can carry out complex tasks, creating such intricate and symmetrical geometric patterns, could give us clues to explore larger neurological systems.

If the team’s math holds up in the next experimental phase, this could open a door to novel groundbreaking spider-inspired flight technology, like nanoscale drones that cruise on Earth’s air or electrical currents. They may even bring us further out into space.

Source study: Physical Review E Ballooning in spiders using multiple silk threads

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