Robot Fire Ants: How Can Insect Behavior Improve Search-And-Rescue Technology?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 21, 2013 5:10 PM EDT

Fire ant
By studying fire ants' tunneling behavior, Georgia Tech scientists have discovered ways that search-and-rescue robot technology can be improved. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A new study on the tunneling habits of fire ants may help engineers build better search-and-rescue robots. Such robots are used to find people in the rubble after disasters like yesterday's tornado in Oklahoma.   

Scientists at Georgia Tech have looked at the complex fire ants' nests, which can hold up to 100,000 individuals and can be evacuated extremely quickly if the nest floods. The ants, native to South America but also found in the United States, are habituated to cyclical floods so they build nests that can be evacuated in a moment's notice.

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The Georgia Tech scientists observed the tunnels of fire ants in two- and three-dimensional nests constructed in their lab. Using x-ray and video tracking technology, the scientists were able to watch the ants make their way through tunnels. When scientists would fire an air piston underneath the maze, they'd watch how the ants react when they fell. The scientists were surprised to find the ants using their antennae as an extra limb to steady themselves, which was something scientists apparently hadn't seen before.

"We were so surprised to see [the ants] move so fast," said Nick Gravish, the lead author of the study. "And their motion was filled with slips and missteps. You get a sense that slipping and falling is not a problem. We see that ants can run over the top of each other, and lift each other up. They can scramble as fast as possible and there's no penalty for that."

Gravish acknowledged the link between the ants' deft movements and tomorrow's lifesaving robots.

"We're very interested in how the next generation of robotics, which is going to be at the millimeter scale, will move through torturous complex environments," Gravish said. "These ants are a good system to look at locomotion and this is one of the first studies to look at locomotion of ants in their own environment."

According to Robin Murphy, a computer scientist at the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, this is the first study to address the sort of rubble-filled heaps that rescue teams contend with after a disaster. 

"Search-and-rescue robots have been used in 35 disasters," Murphy told Popular Mechanics. "Most of the time the robots have been very successful, but they could have been more successful if they could handle this twisty, tortuous terrain. Understanding how animals get through these environments is hugely important."

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