Ants perform some pretty incredible tasks — from carrying up to 5,000 times their own body weight (according to researchers at Ohio State University as reported in the Journal of Biomechanics) to assembling themselves into rafts that can float for weeks, saving an entire colony from drowning. Ants are well known for their highly organized colonies and nests, which often house millions and where teamwork is key to their ability to accomplish extraordinary feats.
These characteristics are behind a German engineering company’s creation of BionicANTs — bionic artificial prototypes that provide a technology platform mirroring the autonomous decision-making and cooperative behavior of real ants. The company, Festo, has created BionicANTs using complex control algorithms that enable ants to make individual decisions related to a common purpose. Festo’s project aims to create intelligent agents that can work efficiently in factories by adapting to a variety of needs.
Divide and conquer
“With this technology platform, we looked at the principle of division of labor. Ants are the archetype of diligent, industrious insects. Each ant is part of an immense organization. The artificial ants demonstrate how optimization strategies for efficient work processes can be realized by means of autonomous, cooperative behavior,” says Andrea Ziomek, Festo’s manager of corporate communications, Americas. “Bionics serves as an ideal platform for the development of new technologies, manufacturing methods, products and product ideas, and for testing their market relevance.”
“Ants live in large colonies with a clear hierarchy and firmly established rules,” says Dr.-Ing. Heinrich Frontzek, head of corporate communication and future concepts at Festo. “Each ant in a colony knows what task it has to carry out. They can thus perform tasks together that an individual ant could not manage alone.”
The plastic body of the BionicANT is 3D-printed with electronic circuits placed on top. Six legs and grippers are made from ceramic actuators that enable it to quickly bend as necessary to perform a task with precision.
Festo’s BionicANTs use piezo technology, for example, for the movement of the grippers on the artificial ants’ heads and also of their legs. “This new application of piezo technology underscores the advantages of the precise, rapid control of piezo elements,” says Ziomek. “They are energy-efficient, practically wear-free and require only a very small installation space.”
A stereo camera in each ant’s head (where eyes would normally be) helps it navigate and identify objects that can be grabbed with grippers. Floor sensors also help the BionicANTs get a sense of their surroundings while they use a wireless network to communicate with one another. The battery-powered ants charge their batteries by moving their metal antennae against electric rails. Underneath each thorax area is an optical sensor similar to that of a computer’s mouse.
The company says the BionicANT technology shows promise of working in factories; for example, cleaning up workroom floors during off hours.
In good company
The bionic ants were recently presented at Germany’s Hanover Messe — the world’s biggest industrial technology trade fair — along with Festo’s other creations that include eMotionButterflies (ultra-lightweight flying objects with collective behavior) and FlexShapeGripper (a gripping device modeled after the chameleon’s tongue).
Festo has also created robotic kangaroos that bounce on flexible blades, bionic elephant’s trunk that can be trained to pick up objects and mock penguins that can swim or float through the air to monitor their environment.