Besides slinging webs and kissing while hanging upside down, Spider-Man's most famous ability is his "spidey-sense," allowing the hero to sense danger in advance and react with lightning speed. That's not purely fiction either – spiders have tiny, sensitive hairs on their legs that help them avoid predators or hunt prey. And now, engineers at Purdue University have developed similar sensors that could be used in autonomous cars or drones.

In nature, "mechanosensors" like those spider leg-hairs are perfectly tuned to focus only on the data that the spider needs for survival. They'll pick up vibrations that indicate a bug is stuck in the web, for example, but won't concern themselves with lower frequency vibrations that might just be the wind.

Inspired by this, the Purdue team set out to create mechanosensors that will ignore minor forces, and only signal the rest of the machine after that sensation hits a certain threshold. The trick to this is making the sensors out of a material that starts off stiff, but changes shape rapidly when an external force is applied to it. When its changed shape reaches a certain point, conductive particles inside the material come together and allow electricity to flow through. That in turn sends a signal to the rest of the machine, which responds as needed.

This kind of system would require less energy and computational power to run, since the brains of the machine wouldn't need to be constantly checking unnecessary stimulation to decide when it needs to pay attention to it.

"With the help of machine learning algorithms, we could train these sensors to function autonomously with minimum energy consumption," says Andres Arrieta, lead author of the study. "There are also no barriers to manufacturing these sensors to be in a variety of sizes."

These kinds of mechanosensors could be strategically placed on drones, planes or autonomous cars, to help them detect objects and obstacles and avoid them much faster than is currently possible.

The research was published in the journal ACS Nano.

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