Ant Colony Sent To The International Space Station; Experiment Will Show How Insects Forage In Microgravity

By Josh Lieberman on January 20, 2014 11:04 AM EST

ants
800 ants have been sent to space to see how they react to foraging in microgravity. (Photo: Flickr: cyron)

A colony of ants currently aboard the International Space Station could help scientists determine how to build better search and rescue robots. ISS engineers are monitoring 800 common ants (the non-crazy kind, fortunately) to see how their foraging methods change when subjected to microgravity. Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford University who designed the experiment, says that a wide range of man-made networks could benefit from studying how ants solve problems when plunged into this new environment.

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Ants search an area using what those in the robotics field call "distributed algorithms." Worker ants forage without a leader, and they are constantly changing their search technique depending on how many other ants are in the area. Since ants have terrible sight, they communicate with one another by touching antennas and by smell. The less contact an ant has with other ants, the fewer ants it (rather logically) believes are nearby, and it tailors its search method accordingly.

"When ant densities are high, each ant thoroughly searches one small area in a circular, 'random' walk," said Stefanie Countryman, program director of the University of Colorado Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies, which is behind the space ant mission. "When ant densities are low, each ant searches by walking in a relatively straight line, allowing it to cover more ground."

In the ISS experiment, a video camera was trained on the ants as they searched an enclosure about the size of a tablet computer. The enclosure was separated into three sections by barriers, which could be raised and lowered in order to change the density of ants in each section. In the microgravity of space, ants struggle to walk, so its harder for them to communicate with one another. Such communication-free searches could shed light on how autonomous robots could best search dangerous areas without guidance from humans. 

"We have devised ways to organize the robots in a burning building, or how a cellphone network can respond to interference, but the ants have been evolving algorithms for doing this for 150 million years," said Gordon. "Learning about the ants' solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems."

The ants were carried to the ISS by Orbital Science's delayed Cygnus supply mission, which arrived on the ISS on January 12. Cygnus brought about 2,800 pounds of cargo to the space station, including 23 student experiments (a beer-brewing kit among them) and some very late Christmas presents.  

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