Spider Flight Observations Can Lead to Transport Innovations, Scientists Say

Data from spider flight observations could be used to develop new technologies.
Chris Young

Spiders don't have wings — unless you count the decorative "wing" markings on the Araneus albotriangulus. And yet, spiders can actually fly.

They climb to a high point, raise their abdomens to point to the sky, release strands of silk to catch the wind and fly away. A new study recently shed light on the method of flight, which is known as ballooning.

Now, researchers say that observing these spiders in flight could help us to create technological innovations. 


Flying spiders

A study conducted by biologists Erica Morley and Daniel Robert from the University of Bristol last year showed how spiders sense the Earth’s electric field and use electrical energy to propel themselves into the air.

Negative and positive charges

The impressive method continues to be studied. The thousands of thunderstorms that happen every day on Earth mean that its atmosphere is a giant electrical circuit — the upper atmosphere is positively charged, while the Earth's surface is negatively charged.

When the spiders release silk, it typically picks up a negative charge. The negative of the silk then repels the negative charge of the surface on which the spider is standing, creating a force that lifts it into the air.

New insights

More recently, aerodynamics engineer Moonsung Cho from Berlin's Technical Institute set out to discover how deliberate this method flight is.

Are the spiders shooting out webs without really knowing where they will end up, or is "ballooning" a more precise form of navigation? 

As the National Geographic reports, Cho gathered 14 crab spiders before setting them on a platform (video above) and observing them take flight.

The behavior Cho observed was “highly developed,” he said while adding that there are “big numbers of spiders doing this accurately.”

Learning from spiders for human innovation

Impressively, Cho and his university advisers hope to apply the findings of their studies to biomechanics.

Cho and his colleagues have published a paper on the findings, though they emphasize the fact that more observations are needed, and that current work is focused on understanding the flight of the spiders, not on developing new technologies.

However, scientists believe spider observations could potentially be used to help create a method of low energy transportation in the distant future.

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