Like the real thing, this robot ant colony is more than the sum of its parts

Ant colonies are pretty amazing things, complete with fascinating hierarchies, roles, and social structures that would put your typical high school to shame. You know what’s cooler than a regular ant colony, though? A robot ant colony — complete with tiny 10-gram robots that are able to communicate with one another, assign roles among themselves, and work together to complete tasks.

That’s what a team of researchers at Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed. While the reconfigurable robots, called Tribots, are individually simple in their structure, together they prove more than the sum of their parts by showcasing the ability to detect and overcome obstacles (a process that includes informing the rest of the group), as well as teaming up to move objects much larger and heavier than themselves.

According to Jamie Paik, Professor and Director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL, this project marks a first for origami robots for several reasons. One is the first time such a robot has been able to navigate autonomously and untethered without an environmental power supply, meaning no magnetic field, directed laser, or externally controlled heated environment. It’s also the first demonstration of autonomy in diverse environments employing multiple types of movements, including vertical and horizontal jumping, somersaulting to clear obstacles, walking on textured terrain, and crawling on flat surfaces. Finally, it confirms successful collaboration between the robot agents who completed tasks set by the researchers.

The hope is that one day Tribots could be used in emergency rescue missions, where they could search for targets over a large area and communicate their findings. They may have other potential use cases, too.

“Tribot not only shows its potential as an emergency mitigation robot, but also shows promising results for robots that can be mass-producible in the really near future,” Paik told Digital Trends. “We currently use state-of-the-art 2D manufacturing processes to develop the prototypes of Tribot, but these are technologies that have already been tried and [shown] true by MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) and NEMS (nanoelectromechanical systems) industries. Although this is the first time that we are adopting it for the robotics, the Tribot example shows how they can be directly applied to low-cost but high-precision-resolution robotic platforms.”

A paper describing the work, titled “Designing Minimal and Scalable Insect-Inspired Multi-Locomotion Millirobots,” was recently published in the journal Nature.

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