Robot Ants Blaze Trails with Pheromones of Light

A swarm of small robots mimics the path-finding behavior of real ants

2 min read
Robot Ants Blaze Trails with Pheromones of Light

Insects are masters of the swarm. Bugs like bees and termites and ants manage to do all sorts of complicated and productive things, despite the fact that on an individual level, each insect is really not that smart. The manifestation of complex behaviors from simple systems is appealing to roboticists who otherwise have to try to figure out all kinds of complicated localization and navigation tricks all by themselves. Researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, and at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition, in Toulouse, France, are using swarms of ant-like robots to efficiently navigate networks without any sort of cleverness at all.

These robots are called Alice, either collectively or as individuals. Their behavior is based on Argentine ants, and as such, they have very, very primitive sensing systems: little more than a couple of light sensors. The little robots were released into a simple network maze, where they wandered around a bit looking for an objective while trying to take the least number of turns possible. Wherever they went, they left a trail of "pheromones" as lights turned on above them. All of these behaviors are what ants do, and as you can see in the video, it turned into a very effective way of autonomously discovering an efficient path.

From the sound of things, this research wasn't intended to be about robots, but rather to use the robots to try and figure out how the ants manage to be all ant-y despite having tiny brains and lousy eyesight:

"This research suggests that efficient navigation and foraging can be achieved with minimal cognitive abilities in ants," says lead author Simon Garnier. "It also shows that the geometry of transport networks plays a critical role in the flow of information and material in ant as well as in human societies."

[ PLOS ] via [ SciAm ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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