Could fire ant rafts, nature's most incredible feat of biological engineering, hold the key to the development of effective disaster zone robots? David Hu, mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is studying the incredible structures in an effort to find out. And his methods are taking inspiration from some unlikely places.
Hu has found that collecting ant colonies in a cup and swirling them around, even without water, will cause the insects to ball together. Hu's team discovered that ants grab hold of one another by using adhesive pads on their legs, which stretch to create air pockets allowing the ant-formed raft to float. Floating together in perpendicular patterns, the ants seem aware of each other's relative size, and place themselves in a position that would aid buoyancy.
But Hu's research requires he look within the densely-packed ant structures, and not just at their surface formations. Initially, he attempted to freeze the balled-up ant rafts in liquid nitrogen, but found that running them through a 3D scanner caused the concoction to melt. His solution must have been inspired by a Breaking Bad marathon -- he thought of the way drug users burn up crack cocaine into an inhalable gas, and applied the principle to glue, letting the sticky vapour coat the meshed ants together.
The research could lead to new ways of thinking about modular robots, with particular benefits for robots designed to work in disaster recovery situations. Rather than creating singular Optimus Prime-like super robots, teams of modular, ant-like robots could be used to plug holes or build barriers, even reaching otherwise-inaccessible areas before joining together. Whereas modular robotics currently focuses on geometric shapes, Hu's research is encouraging other research teams to examine the potential of irregularly-sized robots that could join together in uniquely useful ways. [Nature]
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