They are tiny and weigh just 10 grams, but they are able to jump, crawl, and collectively tackle tasks: Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have developed mini robots inspired by ants.
Jaime Paik and her team at the EPFL have built a swarm of tiny robots that communicate with each other, assign tasks to each other, and solve problems together. For example, they are able to collectively overcome obstacles and move objects that are much larger and heavier than themselves, as Jaime Paik and her team describe in the “Nature” journal.
On its own, each of the miniature machines has only limited capabilities. The simple design of the robots was inspired by nature: An ant colony can also work together to accomplish tasks that far exceed the capabilities of an individual ant.
Viewed from the side, the small robots, called tribots, have the shape of a three-pointed star. Each tribot is equipped with infra-red and proximity sensors to enable positioning and communication between the individual robots.
The tribots’ motions are also inspired by nature, more precisely by trap-jaw ants. “These insects usually crawl. But when pursued by a hunter, they snap their strong jaws together to allow them to jump from leaf to leaf,” the author of the study, Zhenishbek Zhakypov, explained.
The researchers imitated this catapult mechanism in the mini-robots, which enables them to jump vertically and horizontally, over obstacles, and run across different types of terrain.
Just like ants in a colony, the tribots in the swarm fulfill different roles: As scouts that communicate obstacles to others, as leaders that issue orders, or as workers that cooperate to move objects.
However, each tribot can perform several different functions and take on a new role if conditions change or a member of the swarm is lost, Jaime Paik explained. “This goes beyond the capabilities of real ants.”
Thanks to their simple design, the tribots are suited for mass production. They are assembled based on a simple origami principle. The researchers envisage a range of applications for tribot swarms, for example search and rescue operations. Thanks to their swarm intelligence, they would be able to more effectively adapt to unfamiliar environments and thus outperform large, more powerful robots on certain missions.
Written by SDA / APA
Photos by Keystone