The best known project using ants as a model are the “Army-Ant Robot” projects being carried out independently in several countries. One study being carried out by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University seeks to develop small, inexpensive, and simple physically identical robots that can be used as a robot army. Project officials explain these robots' functionality in the following terms: “The way they behave as a group, in a coordinated manner, perform a series of physical actions, and take joint decisions.” These robot armies' mechanical and electrical designs have been based on the behaviour of an ant community. They are called the “army-ant” robots because of their similarities to their insect counterparts.
The “army-ant” robot system was originally designed as a “material-carrying system.” According to this scenario, several small robots would be charged with jointly lifting and carrying objects. It was later decided that they could be used for other tasks. One report describes other tasks to which they might be assigned in the future:
Nuclear and hazardous waste cleanup with robotic “swarms,” mining (including material removal and search-and-rescue), mine sweeping (both land and water), surveillance and sentry, planetary surface exploration and excavation. (1)
In a report by Israel A. Wagner, an expert on ant robot technology, the ant robot projects were described in these terms:
Ant-robots are simple physical or virtual creatures designed to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. They are assumed to have very limited resources of energy, sensing and computing, and to communicate via traces left in the workspace or on the ground, like many insects naturally do…
The distribution of work among multiple a(ge)nts can be made by either a central controller who sends orders to the agents, or by an a-priori agreement on a certain partitioning that, if obeyed by the agents, eventually leads to a completion of the given mission. A third way, used throughout the current work, is to design the behavior of individuals such that cooperation will naturally emerge in the course of their work, without making a-priori decisions on the structure of the cooperation. The specific application that we address is covering, which is also known as exploring or searching. This variety of names hints to the many applications this problem might have: from cleaning the floor of a house to mapping an unknown planet or demining a mine field. (2)
As can be seen in these examples, an ant's social lifestyle forms the basis of many projects, and the various ant-based robot technologies are providing benefits for human beings.
1) John S. Bay, “Design of the ‘Army Ant' Cooperative Lifting Robot,” http://armyant.ee.vt.edu/paper/robo_mag.html.
2) Israel A. Wagner, “My Travels With my A(u)nts: Distributed Ant Robotics,” www.cs.technion.ac.il/~wagner/pub/thesis_abs_eng.html.