Tiny mobile robots are learning to work with insects in the hope the creatures’ sensitive antennae and ability to squeeze into small spaces can be put to use serving humans.
With a soft electronic whirr, a rather unusual looking ant trundles along behind a column of its arthropod comrades as they march off to fetch some food.
While the little insects begin ferrying tiny globules of sugar back home, their mechanical companion bustles forward to effortlessly pick up the entire container and carry it back to the nest.
It is a dramatic demonstration of how robots can be introduced and accepted into insect societies.
But the research, which is being conducted as part of the EU-funded CyBioSys project, could be an important step towards using robots to subtly control, or work alongside, animals or humans.
‘The idea is to be able to solve (a) problem with a better solution than they (the robots and insects) can produce individually,’ said Dr Bertrand Collignon, who is leading the research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland.
The robots, which ‘live’ with the ants, pick up signs that food has been discovered through a camera mounted inside the nest. The camera alerts the robots when it detects an increasing numbers of ants are departing – a sign that food has been found.
The robots – reprogrammed off-the-shelf Thymio bots managed by simple Raspberry Pi computers – then use sensors to follow the columns of exiting ants. Once the ants have led their robotic counterparts to their discovery, the robots take over, using their superior muscle power to lug it home.
Dr Collignon described this as a ‘cyber-biological system’, which improves both on the natural order, and on what robots could achieve on their own. By getting ants and robots to collaborate, each community plays to its strengths, he says.