New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Simon Garnier and other researchers have used tiny robots called “Alices” to mimic the behavior of ants, something they say could help improve modern transportation. Ants are notorious for their colony-wide behavior, acting as one when assembled in groups and using the shortest paths to navigate to their food, forming a so-called superorganism.
The researchers achieved this by using robots said to be about the size of sugar cubes and equipped with light sensors. Above the robots was a projector that marked the robots’ trails with light, which the tiny devices were programmed to follow. The light trails were intended to simulate the pheromone trails left by ants that help them navigate.
The robots’ ability to navigate was very rudimentary: they were programmed to avoid obstacles and barriers, to follow light trails, and to move forward, with their forward direction changing angles frequently. It is not surprising, then, that initially the robots moved randomly forward, but that over time as their motions created light trails, they gravitated towards following the light trails.
Said Garnier about this behavior, “The principles that ants use to find shorter paths have actually been the basis of computer programs developed in the last 10 years to help decide what are the best paths for trucks to transport merchandise between cities ― the so-called traveling salesman problem. One of the most efficient algorithms to solve this problem is directly inspired by the same logic studied in our work, and is also used by telecommunications companies to route packets of information between cell phones.”