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EXCLUSIVE: Robotic ants could change transportation networks

A team of scientists are one step closer to understanding how ants are able to coordinate with one another. In a paper published earlier this week, a team of scientists revealed the findings of their research regarding how ants build some of the most efficient networks in nature and how that could eventually usher in a new age of transportation and robotics.

New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Simon Garnier, working in coordination with colleagues, has reportedly created the first robotic ant network, part of an effort to build better robot swarms by imitating  communication tactics employed by ants around the world.

Through a series of test, Garnier and his colleagues were able to breakdown the strategies used by ants to coordinate with one another. By making ants wander through mazes, the scientists were able to determine how ants collectively choose the shortest, most direct route between their nest and food.

“Ants have 100,000 neurons — less than we have in our fingers,” Garnier said in a statement released through the university. “Despite that, they can form networks that help them navigate so much.”

Scientists say complex networks could one day rely on the same tactics utilized by ants as they navigate in large collective bodies called “superorganisms.” Investigating how ants behave has revealed more about how such group behavior arises. The insights  allowed the scientists to devise robots able to simulate the pheromone trails left by ants that help them navigate.  According to a statement released through the university, the robots, called “Alices,” were able to create a network by producing light trails that they can detect with two light sensors mimicking the role of the ants’ antennae. According to Garnier, the robots were programmed to follow light trails with a pair of light sensors, avoid obstacles and move forward, randomly changing the angle at which they moved every few seconds. While the robots lacked more sophisticated navigation techniques, if they detected a light trail, they were able to turn to follow that path.

The study focused mainly on Argentine ants and their ability to behave and coordinate in both symmetrical and asymmetrical pathways, according to Garnier. The study revealed that the robots did not require programming in order to operate efficiently. They managed to navigate by simply relying on the pheromone light trail and the programmed walk, which allowed the robots navigate via  the more direct route between their starting point and the eventual objective.

The study is the latest attempt by scientists to look to nature as inspiration for robots. A number of projects developed by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) have relied heavily on natural designs. It remains unclear whether the research could be deployed by military personnel in an attempt to build better coordination systems.

According to Garnier, the results of the study are likely to provide engineers with better information on how to design more efficient transportation systems, a change that could reduce time wasted in traffic and increased fuels savings for consumers.

The findings are published  in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

The following is a transcript of our email interview with Dr. Simon Garnier, assistant professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Science Recorder (SR): How did this project come to be?

Dr. Simon Garnier (SG): It started as a robotic project. It was originally designed to evaluate the efficacy of the “ant logic” in helping groups of robots navigate complex networks of corridors and galleries. Quickly we realized that we could use this setup to test some hypotheses related to the work on Argentine ants that we were running in parallel. And it’s what we did.

SR: What is the single most important takeaway from this research?

SG: The networks of pheromone trails built by ants are shaped in a way that facilitate their return toward the nest after a foraging trip and that improve their ability to collective discover and select the shorter route toward a food source.

SR: How do you see this research being used in the future?

SG: This is basic research. It is always hard to predict the future uses of this type of research. However this results may be of interest for people working on designing smarter autonomous navigation systems.

SR: What was the single biggest surprise during your research?

SG: We had two possible hypotheses: either the ants measure explicitly the geometry of the bifurcation, in which case they would need to use relatively complex cognitive abilities, or they don’t and their movement is mostly decided by the physical structure of the environment and their ability to follow the pheromone trail. Our experiments show that the second hypothesis is more likely to be true because our robots were not capable of complex cognitive processes and their behavior was remarkably similar to the behavior of the ants.

SR: Does this tell us anything about how ants (or other creatures)
navigate everyday life?

SG: It tells us that the physical configuration of our environment can have a strong impact on the outcome of collective movements and collective decisions in social animals.

SR:  Are there any plans for additional research or studies?

SG:  Yes. Now we understand better how the shape of the networks built by the ants improve their ability to select a route toward a food source. However we still don’t know how they manage to create networks with this particular shape. The next step is therefore to study the behaviors of the ants that are involved in the building of their transportation networks.

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