Tiny Roving Robots Help Ants Collect Food More Efficiently
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Review: ‘Daemon X Machina’ Has Big Robots, Small Fun on Nintendo SwitchThis Robot Is Equal Parts Lawnmower and Snow Blower Stay on target European scientists have created tiny robots that can be introduced and accepted into insect societies.The lovechild of Ant-Man and Iron Man, these mobile machines are learning to work with insects (specifically, those of the family Formicidae) to eventually control serve humans.“The idea is to be able to solve [a] problem with a better solution than they [the robots and insects] can produce individually,” according to study lead Bertrand Collignon, of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.Part of the EU-funded CyBioSys project (a component of the Horizon 2020 EU Research and Innovation program), the ongoing research could be combined with other work teaching robots to communicate with animals.The process is fairly simple: A camera mounted inside the nest alerts the androids when a legion of ants are departing—a sure sign that food has been found.Embedded sensors then allow the bots to follow their creepy-crawly companions to the bounty, at which point the machines take over, using their “superior muscle power” to carry the feast back home.By working together, the robots (re-programmed off-the-shelf Thymio bots running on Raspberry Pi computers) and insects play to their respective strengths, creating a so-called “cyber-biological system” (CBS).Boasting an exceptional sense of smell, ants—as anyone who’s ever had an infestation knows—are pretty darn good at sniffing out dinner. But their miniscule bodies often can’t handle the weight of your crumbs, and some (despite an advanced pheromone system) get lost on the return journey.Robots, on the other hand, can carry a crapload more than the scuttling arthropods, in a fraction of the time.“This synergy will save the energy that should be consumed by the robots for constantly exploring the environment and quicken the collection of the food, making the ants more rapidly available for further exploration,” the project objective said.Infiltrating notoriously aggressive colonies—like ants and bees—is not new: A previous EU-funded venture found that small mobile robots could interact with cockroaches and influence their collective behavior.(A frightening glimpse into our future?)Continued work in the field may eventually lead to applications in search and rescue, exploring environments too dangerous or inaccessible for humans. Integrated artificial systems could also usher in new solutions to controlling animal behavior on farms.