Wonderful Engineering

These Tribots Have Been Inspired From Ants

A demonstration that is focused on less is more, EPFL scientists are developing simple robots that are capable of behaving and cooperating like ants. These robots are called Tribots, and each unit weighs in at 10 grams. Tribots are simple, tether-less, and reconfigurable robots with three legs that can be folded like origami. What sets them apart is that they can be assigned roles and can work in cooperation on complex tasks.

The ability of ant to team up with other ants for achieving spectacular results is quite well-known. However, despite the appearance that ants know what is happening on a larger scale; they don’t have much of an idea of what they are doing on a larger scale. In fact, each ant only understands only about four instructions quite similar to a computer algorithm. Each ant is ‘programmed’ to respond in a particular way if something particular happens.

This explains why the ants often act like idiots such as when they do stuff like attempting to haul a crumb over the top of a stalk of grass or shifting sand grains to a single pile only to have other ants shift them back. Zhenishbek Zhakypov and Jamie Paik are leading a team of researchers, that is working on incorporating this ability into small robots that can be mass-produced – Tribots. Tribots can be folded into stacks of thin, multi-material sheets.

These Tribots feature more than one locomotion modes, thus enabling them to tackle obstacles. They also come equipped with infrared and proximity sensors for detecting and communicating. Zhakypov said, ‘Their movements are modeled on those of Odontomachus ants. These insects normally crawl, but to escape a predator, they snap their powerful jaws together to jump from leaf to leaf.’ The team believes that Tribots have several applications including emergency search and rescue operations where they can be used for scouting disaster-struck areas much quickly as opposed to bigger individual robots.

Paik said, ‘Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some ‘casualties’ would not affect the success of the mission. With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots can demonstrate better adaptability to unknown environments; therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots.’

The research on Tribots has been published in Nature.