The same principles could be applied to develop future swarm robots
Researchers have found that ants living across the Central and South American rainforests construct bridges with their bodies to cross large gaps and to move from one point to another.
The bridges are dismantled when they become too long and the traffic going over them slows down.
Army ants are nomadic species which relocate their colonies throughout the rainforest on regular basis. To facilitate the movement of their large population and to maximize the speed, these ants link their own bodies to plug holes along the path to cross potentially dangerous terrains. The bridges can disassemble in a matter of seconds depending on the traffic pattern on the trail.
Prior to the study, it was assumed that these bridges do not change too much once they are locked into a structure. But now, researchers have found that it’s not the case.
“After starting at intersections between twigs or lianas travelled by the ants, the bridges slowly move away from their straight point creating shortcuts and progressively lengthening by addition of new workers, before stopping, suspended in mid-air," said co-lead author Dr Christopher Reid.
“In many cases, the ants could have created better shortcuts, but instead they ceased moving their bridges before achieving the shortest route possible."
They could utilize these workers to achieve other important tasks such as capturing prey or transportation of offspring. Ants had to balance this cost-benefit trade-off while building the bridges.
The technique holds promise for developing self-assembling systems like autonomous robotic swarms that can be used for exploration and rescue operations. By analyzing how ants form those bridges, simple control algorithms can be created and applied to robots.
“Artificial systems made of independent robots operating via the same principles as the army ants could build large-scale structures as needed,” said Reid.
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“Such swarms could accomplish remarkable tasks, such as creating bridges to navigate complex terrain, plugs to repair structural breaches, or supports to stabilize a failing structure. These systems could also enable robots to operate in complex unpredictable settings, such as in natural-disaster areas, where human presence is dangerous or problematic.”