'Dumb' robot ants are alarmingly smart (and strong) working together

Everyone knows robot ants can't move a rubber tree plant. Oh shoot, they can!

A team of Swiss researchers with bugs on the brain has created an army of simple robotic "ants" capable of some impressive feats. The takeaway from these 10 gram bots, which are inexpensive to make and surprisingly simple in design? Teamwork makes the dream work. 

As described in a new paper in the journal Nature, the ants can communicate with each other, assign roles among themselves, and complete complex tasks and overcome obstacles together. That means that while simple compared to much more complex autonomous agents, these origami-inspired robots can solve complex challenges, such navigating uneven surfaces or, yes, moving comparatively huge objects.

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The robots, which are T-shaped and called Tribots by researchers at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, a Swiss research institute, have infrared and proximity sensors for detection and communication. Made of foldable thin materials, they're also easy to manufacture. The actuated robots can jump and crawl to explore uneven surfaces.

"Their movements are modeled on those of Odontomachus ants," says Zhenishbek Zhakypov, the first author of the Nature article. "These insects normally crawl, but to escape a predator, they snap their powerful jaws together to jump from leaf to leaf."

The Tribots perform a similar move through an origami design that combines multiple shape-memory alloy actuators. In addition to catapulting itself, a single robot can also crawl and roll thanks to these actuators. 

But the secret sauce isn't in the hardware. Rather, it's the cooperation the autonomous robots display. During tasks, each ant is assigned a specific role. For example, explorers may detect physical obstacles, such as objects or cavities. The explorers communicate the information to the rest of the group so that an assigned leader can give instructions to worker ants, which work together to pool their strength.

"Each Tribot, just like Odontomachus ants, can have different roles. However, they can also take on new roles instantaneously when faced with a new mission or an unknown environment, or even when other members get lost. This goes beyond what the real ants can do," says Paik.

Swarm robotics is a burgeoning field, with potential applications in everything from manufacturing to combat. The Tribots, by delineating separate roles, go a step beyond swarms to form useful robotic colonies. Paik believes one use case could include search and rescue missions. 

"Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some 'casualties' would not affect the success of the mission," adds Paik. "With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots are better equipped to adapt to unknown environments. Therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots."