Drones and self-driving cars may soon come with'spidey' senses. That's according to engineers in America, who believe the unmanned machines would benefit from sensory detectors similar to those often seen in arachinds. Specifically, they're referring the hairs on a spider's legs, which are linked to special neurons called mechanoreceptors, which flag-up danger through vibrations. If machines had similar characteristics, they'd be able to navigate more effectively in dangerous environments. Until now, sensor technology hasn't always been able to process data fast enough, or as smoothly, as nature.
Last night, way past midnight, I stumbled onto my porch blindly grasping for my keys after a hellish day of international travel. Lights were low, I was half-asleep, yet my hand grabbed the keychain, found the lock, and opened the door. Thanks to the intricate wiring between our brain and millions of sensors dotted on--and inside--our skin, we know exactly where our hand is in space and what it's touching without needing visual confirmation. But this combined sense of the internal and the external is completely lost to robots, which generally rely on computer vision or surface mechanosensors to track their movements and their interaction with the outside world. What if, instead, we could give robots an artificial nervous system?
The stretchable optical lace material was developed by Ph.D. student Patricia Xu through the Organics Robotics Lab at Cornell University. "We want to have a way to measure stresses and strains for highly deformable objects, and we want to do it using the hardware itself, not vision," said lab director Rob Shepherd, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the paper's senior author. "A good way to think about it is from a biological perspective. A blind person can still feel because they have sensors in their fingers that deform when their finger deforms. Robots don't have that right now." Shepherd's lab previously created sensory foams that used optical fibers to detect such deformations.
Although this homeostatic baroreflex has been described for more than 80 years, the molecular identity of baroreceptor mechanosensitivity remains unknown. We discovered that mechanically activated ion channels PIEZO1 and PIEZO2 are together required for baroreception. Genetic ablation of both Piezo1 and Piezo2 in the nodose and petrosal sensory ganglia of mice abolished drug-induced baroreflex and aortic depressor nerve activity. Awake, behaving animals that lack Piezos had labile hypertension and increased blood pressure variability, consistent with phenotypes in baroreceptor-denervated animals and humans with baroreflex failure. Optogenetic activation of Piezo2-positive sensory afferents was sufficient to initiate baroreflex in mice.
Spiders are truly amazing creatures. They have evolved over more than 200 million years and can be found in almost every corner of our planet. They are one of the most successful animals. Not less impressive are their webs, highly intricate structures that have been optimised through evolution over approximately 100 million years with the ultimate purpose of catching prey. However, interestingly, the closer you look at spiders' webs the more details you can observe and the structures are much more complicated than one would expect from a simple snare.