robot ants large verge medium landscape Robotic ants used to model moving colony

Scientists in New Jersey and France have managed to replicate the complete workings of an ant colony on the move by using robots, in an attempt to understand how the individual ants orient themselves within the colony

Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and the Research Centre on Animal Cognition in Toulouse, France, have managed to replicate the behavior of a colony of ants on the move. The purpose of the study was to understand how Argentine ants coordinate themselves in symmetrical and asymmetrical pathways.

In nature, the ants’ coordination is maintained with pheromone trails. In the study however, sugar cube sized robots named “Alices” used light trails to form pathways. Each robot was equipped with two photo sensors (antennae).

 

 Robotic ants used to model moving colony

Will we usher in the robot apocalypse for ants?

 

At the start of the experiment, the Alices had no path to follow, and instead walked in a manner modeled after regular insect movement. This “exploratory behavior” had the ants walking in a random way but in the same general direction through a maze. The robots eventually began to choose the path that deviated the least from their trajectory each time the path split, and once they found a light path, they would follow that path.

 

An interesting outcome of the study is that the robots didn’t need to be programmed to navigate the maze they were placed in. The two behaviors of random exploring and trail following were enough to create a colony-like path from origin to destination. Argentine ants typically have poor eyesight and move too quickly to think about where they’re going. This study suggests that high level cognitive function is thus not necessary for the ants to efficiently navigate.

 

Lead author of the study, Simon Garnier, adds: "It also shows that the geometry of transport networks plays a critical role in the flow of information and material in ant as well as in human societies."