Tiny in Size, but Goliath in Force: The Colonization of Ant-Based Microrobotics

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Tiny in Size, but Goliath in Force: The Colonization of Ant-Based Microrobotics

Imagine climbing a skyscraper — but while lugging an elephant. Or with a team of five others, lifting the weight of the Eiffel Tower and three Statues of Liberty. As Sisyphean as this sounds, functional equivalents of these incredible feats have already been accomplished by ant-inspired microrobots. And these examples are only the tip of the anthill.

As the ants keep marching on, dominating as a massive superorganism that has colonized nearly every landmass on Earth, researchers are increasingly turning toward ants as inspiration for biomimicry-based robots. An army of ants boasts the ideal physical anatomy and biological organization for transforming the capabilities of microrobots in the real world — from leading in search-and-rescue missions, to mapping previously unexplored terrain on earth and in space.

At the base level, simple math and physics govern the tremendous strength of the individual ant. From the square-cube law, ants have an optimum ratio between surface area and volume: analogous to the ratio between strength and mass. This allows ants to exert more force per milligram of weight. The physiology of ants are another asset to explore. Researchers at Ohio State University reported on the astonishing power of an ant’s neck joint in the Journal of Biomechanics in 2014. By measuring how much centrifugal force was required to separate the ant’s body from its head (the same force you feel on “rotor rides” at the carnival — minus the decapitation, of course), they discovered that the joint could support 3,400 to 5,000 times the body weight of the ant!

But their biological and social coordination is what really sets ants apart. Not only are ants able to pool their strength into a collective unit, but they also practice decentralized communication through chemical signals called pheromones. This protean system functions similarly to a chain of ripples in water, and it effectively allows for cohesive teamwork even across wide distances.

When a combination of these abilities is applied to swarm robotics, the results are impressive. MicroTug robots created at Stanford University are one example. They made headlines when a team of six — weighing just 3.5 ounces together — pulled a car weighing 3,900 pounds. Synchronizing the bots’ movements so that each used three of their six legs, much like how ants cooperate in real life, made this act possible. Tribots, an invention of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Osaka University, are another instance. Based on trap-jaw ants, division of labor and leadership is a core component of Tribots. So, if one robot fails, the system of “fault tolerance” means that the success of the mission won’t be adversely affected. Both MicroTug and Tribot robots hold immense potential in emergency relief and exploration and navigation missions.

“Just like insects, small robots can be powerful,” says Jamie Paik, lead researcher at EPFL, echoing a growing sentiment among the research world. And given the breadth of ant abilities still untapped by microrobots, it won’t be long before there are more queen robots in the field.

Works Cited

Akpan, Nsikan. “How Do Ants Synchronize to Move Really Big Stuff?” PBS NewsHour, 28 July 2015.

“Ant Factoids.” Arizona State University.

Gorder, Pam Frost. “Study of Ants’ Remarkable Strength May Lead to Powerful Micro-Sized Robots.” The Ohio State University, 13 Feb. 2014.

Gordon, Deborah M. “Local Links Run the World.” Aeon, 1 Feb. 2018.

Hernandez, Daisy. “Robotic Ants Function Just Like Real Ones.” Popular Mechanics, 15 July 2019.

Johnson, George. “Of Mice and Elephants: A Matter of Scale.” 12 Jan. 1999.

Koenig, Sven. “Tutorial on Ant Robotics.” Sven Koenig.

Markoff, John. “Modeled After Ants, Teams of Tiny Robots Can Move 2-Ton Car.” The New York Times, 13 March 2016.

“Microtugs.” Stanford Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab, 28 April 2016.

Stevens, Allison Pearce. “Tiny Microrobots Team up and Move Full-Size Car.” ScienceNews for Students, 19 April 2016.