Robot Ants Could Make Us More Efficient

With their tiny wires and circuits, robotic ants won’t be taking over the world anytime soon.

But what these artificial insects lack in processing power, they make up for in efficiency: Robotic ants can automatically choose the shortest route from their food sources back to their nests, just like real ants, a new study says. This gives valuable insight into how people should plan transportation and communication systems.

“It’s really interesting to look at social insects because [they] can give us a way to manage information in our societies,” said Guy Theraulaz, a behavioral biologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, a co-author on the study. “We take some inspiration from nature.” (Related: “Color-Changing Rubber Robot Could Aid Animal Study.”)

Robo-ants aren’t so different from the insects they mimic. Real ants have tiny brains, which means navigating everyday life, with all its sights and vibrations, is a challenge. So to save brainpower, these insects have evolved to ignore outside stimulation.

“Ants are pretty dumb by themselves,” said study leader Simon Garnier, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Swarm Lab. “They have about a hundred thousand neurons. There are more neurons in your finger.”

The Path Most Efficient

Despite their simplemindedness, ants almost always take the most efficient path home, which has long stumped the scientific community.

So Garnier and colleagues programmed tiny robots to act like ants using a series of simple computer commands and then put them in a labyrinth. When the robot ants reached a fork in the road, they kept walking straight until they hit an obstacle and veered off in the direction of least resistance—the shortest distance. The ants were relying on simple physics.

“If I blindfold you and put you in the corridor, and you hit the wall, you’re more likely to take the path that deviates less,” said Garnier, whose study was published March 28 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

Once the robot ants find the most efficient way through the labyrinth, they alert their peers by calling attention to the pathway with lights. (Real ants use pheromones, or chemical markers.) The robot ants go marching one by one, each laying down a new layer of light. Soon, all ants are traveling on the same, highly productive road. (Watch a video of fierce army ants.)

“It’s like if you want to go to a restaurant with your friends, and one says, ‘I want to go to pizza.’ The other says, ‘I want to go to Chinese food.’ And at one point, if more friends say they want to go to pizza, you’ll go there,” Garnier added.

Combating “Collective Madness”

It’s called the “ant algorithm,” and our societies could benefit from applying it to everyday problems. (Also see “Could Cyborg Cockroaches Save Your Life?”)

Like ants, “we are overloaded with information, but we didn’t develop the appropriate filter,” said Theraulaz, of the French scientific center. “Now we produce a kind of collective madness, and that’s the problem.”

Adopting more collective-swarm intelligence would also make human society less costly and more productive, Theraulaz said. For example, thinking like an ant swarm could better plan shipping routes, place cell phone towers, and task assignments within companies.

The next step is to build more robot-ant studies to further test the algorithm and then apply it to large-scale systems, such as city planning and freeway mapping.

“We can build very simple entities,” Theraulaz said. “This kind of technology will invade society and promote collective intelligence.”

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.