Because ants are some of the most productive creatures on Earth it is only natural that engineers look to them as inspiration for small robots that can work in teams and navigate through difficult terrain.

University of Notre Dame Engineers created a six-inch ‘robot ant’ swarm that was able to conquer terrain, obstacles and form long chains.  

Each automaton had a microcontroller and a Lithium Polymer Battery.

The front had an LED light sensor to alert the swarm. Both the ends have magnetic touch sensors that allow them connect.

Yasemin Ozkan-Aydin, an electrical engineering professor at Notre Dame who worked on the robotic insects, told SYFY Wire she thought their best use would be in space exploration. 

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Scientists at the University of Notre Dame and the Georgia Institute of Technology developed six-inch four-legged robots based on an ant's body and collaborative nature

The Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Notre Dame scientists developed four-legged six-inch robots that are four inches tall. They were inspired by the body of an ant and its collaborative nature.

They’re small and cost-effective. Ozkan Aydin explained that size and weight are important considerations when it comes to space travel. 

“And there is no limit on the number of swarms, so you can continue adding to them as necessary.” 

‘Legged robots can navigate challenging environments such as rough terrain and tight spaces, and the use of limbs offers effective body support, enables rapid maneuverability and facilitates obstacle crossing,’ Ozkan-Aydin said in a statement.

However, such automatons may have mobility problems in natural settings which can reduce movement and performance. 

The robots' legs were made flexible to reduce the need for more sensors

Robot legs are made more flexible in order to decrease the requirement for additional sensors

If facing an obstacle it couldn't overcome alone, the robot would light up its LED to notify the swarm it needed assistance. To traverse uneven terrain, the robots might link up into long chains.

A robot that is faced with an obstacle it cannot overcome on its own would turn off its LED and notify other members of the group. The robots could link up to form long chains to help them traverse uneven terrain.

Uneven terrain can also hinder wheeled robots that are often deployed in spaces. 

She stated that ants transport or collect objects and if they encounter an obstacle, then the entire group collaborates to get over it. “If they find a gap, they’ll form a bridge to allow the others to cross it,’ she said. 

Daniel Goldman from the Georgia Institute of Technology was also inspired by her idea and created the robot ants. 

The pair designed a group of four-legged robots, each measuring 6 to 8 inches long— small, but still at least three times the size of the largest real ant.

Their experiments were being conducted during a Pandemic Lockdown. They needed to be able to access readily-available materials and work remotely from home.

Out in the field, the robots were directed to traverse grass, mulch, leaves, and acorns

Robots were instructed to use a field for grass, leaves and mulch.

Robots printed using a 3D printer were equipped with motors that can be purchased at most hobby shops.

Ozkan Aydin said that anyone who has access to a printer 3D and can afford a couple hundred dollars would be able to build them.

Ozkan Aydin and Goldman modified the robots’ legs to make them more adaptable in order reduce the need of additional sensors.

The robot’s flexibility allows it to walk right past the obstacles. [any obstacles]” 

When an individual 'ant' became stuck, its light turned on, signaling to other robots it needed help. Another robot's LED sensor would measure the gradient of the light and understand when it was getting closer to its comrade in distress

The light of an individual ant would go on when it became trapped, signaling that other robots needed assistance. An LED sensor on another robot would detect the change in the light’s gradient and alert it when its companion is in trouble.

As a result, the robots ‘can test for gaps in a path, building a bridge with their bodies; move objects individually; or connect to move objects collectively in different types of environments, not dissimilar to ants.’

Robots were instructed to use a field for grass, leaves and mulch.

They tested their handling on shag carpeting and’stairs made from insulation foam’ at home.

The task was to move objects around the different environments.

For a task requiring moving an object, several bots might come at it from different angle and share the load

If a job requires moving an object several bots may be able to approach it from different angles and help each other share the burden

Ozkan Aydin and Goldman reported in Science Robotics that the swarm had been able to complete every task given.

If an individual ant became stuck, the light on its head turned green, signaling that other robots needed to help.

An LED sensor on another robot would detect the change in the light’s gradient and tell it when its companion is getting nearer to danger.  

Multiple bots can be assigned to a task that involves the moving of an object. They might each approach the job from a different angle, and then share in the work.

The robots could be connected to form long chains in order to navigate uneven terrain. 

While the initial design of the centipede was intended, it wasn’t what the team chose. They decided on an ant layout because they are more modular.

Ozkan Aydin stated to SYFY Wire, “You can use as many robotics as you need for a particular task.” “In our experiment, they were required to navigate narrow mazes. A larger robot would not have been capable of doing it. 

The robotic 'swarm' traversing leaves

Robotic swarm traversing leaf

To make the design truly sustainable, there will need to be some adjustments, she said, particularly to the battery.

She stated that small batteries are needed to provide greater power and last for at least ten hours.

She added that additional sensors and motors are also required while keeping the robots small.

She said, “You have to consider how robots will function in real life.” “Everything is small so it’s important to consider every aspect of the machine when making decisions.