Studying the behavior of fire ant colonies may help scientists create better, more effective robots, a new study published in the journal Science reports.
Ants are known to be hard workers. However, the new findings — which come from scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology — show that more bodies do not necessarily mean more work gets done. In fact, having too many ants in a tunnel can clog it up and bring everything to a halt.
In the study, the team found that only a small number of workers do the digging in fire ant colonies. Though that may seem inefficient, it creates more space inside nest tunnels and allows digging jobs to get done without any pile-ups or ant traffic jams.
That optimization strategy is not just important from a biological standpoint, but it may also help researchers build autonomous robots that will not get in each other’s way. That could then help with tasks like disaster recovery, mining, or shelter digging.
To make the discovery, researchers monitored 30 ants within a colony. They soon found that 30 percent of the insects were doing 70 percent of the work. It seems those percentages create the best possible workflow. In fact, when the team removed the five hardest working ants from the nest container they found no dip in productivity.
The team then built robots that mimicked the aspects of such ants, which allowed as many as three at a time to work effectively. Any more than that and there is a build up.
In ants, when such a build up occurs, the ones that just entered the tunnel immediately turn around and retreat. Programming that behavior into the machines allowed the robots to dig much more efficiently with low amounts of energy use.
This finding is important because it could aid space exploration, a field where scientists may need to quickly dig tunnels to avoid sudden extraterrestrial storms. Making sure robots dig with little problems is important and would help everything run smoothly. The findings are also significant because they shed light on the complex social skills of ants and give new insight into the field of physics.
“Ants that live in complex subterranean environments have to develop sophisticated social rules to avoid the bad things that can happen when you have a lot of individuals in a crowded environment,” added Goldman, according to Phys.org. “We are also contributing to understanding the physics of task-oriented active matter, putting more experimental knowledge into phenomenon such as swarms.”