Thursday, March 28, 2013

Robot Ants on the Highway of Life

Robot ants are probably not a significant part of our technological future. Still, it’s news that scientists at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition in France have created robots that mimic theswarming behavior of real ants, rushing purposefully at high speed through complex passages just like ants do.

The ants that the robots were built to mimic are Argentine ants. In nature, they leave pherome trails as they move. Pheromes are hormones that act outside the body. For Argentine ants they act like road signs, signaling to other ants where they’ve been and how to follow. Remember the fairy tale characters Hansel and Gretl who left a trail of bread crumbs when they walked into the forest? Their trail, as the story went, was eaten by birds. Pheromes, on the other hand, are smelled—by other ants.

The ant robots built by the scientists in New Jersey and France are about the size of sugar cubes. Rather than drop pheromes, they leave trails of light that other ant robots in their colony detect with sensors. In this study, the lead robot ants moved in the way real ants do when they’re exploring—rather randomly, but in the same general direction. But as they moved other robot ants swarmed after them.

According to the study’s scientists, what all this implies is that, in nature, individual ants don’t need to be navigators—nor do they need to be particularly smart. Which is good, because individual Argentine ants have poor eyesight and, in general, rush about too quickly to plan where to go next. It’s a high-speed life that ants lead, and on their “roadways” they, like human drivers, depend on big, obvious signals about where to safely go next.

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