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Robotic 'ants' may colonize Mars

November 3, 2008

by Mark Ollig

That’s one small step for an ant, one giant leap for robotic ant-kind?

We already have the rovers traversing the surface of Mars, so when will we see human astronauts driving around in four wheel Martian vehicles?

Well, we may have to wait – as there is talk about sending a “colony” of robotic ants to investigate and prepare the red planet for humans.

These ants are called “micro-robots” and they will all be equipped with a type of limited, pre-rational on-board “intelligence.”

This will allow them to communicate among themselves via infrared light – using a kind of “collective perception.”

“Small robots that are able to work together could explore the planet. We now know there is water and dust so all they would need is some sort of glue to start building structures, such as homes for human scientists,” says Marc Szymanski, a robotics researcher at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, which is home to the European Union funded “I-SWARM” project.

Szymanski is one of European researchers working on tiny self-sufficient robots that can work together or individually to perform work tasks.

Remember when we were young and had one of those plastic ant farms? We would watch the ants working as they were digging and removing the dirt from their ant colonies.

Ants are certainly a well organized group.

In Wikipedia it states how “Their (ants) success has been attributed to their social organization, ability to modify their habitats, tap resources and defend themselves.”

From the pictures I saw of these new robotic ants I would definitely have to say they are the size of, well . . . ants.

The micro-robotic ants are much smaller than the nail on your finger; it is like looking at a mechanical bug out of a science fiction movie.

On this week’s “Web Site of the Week” forum, I will display some pictures of these amazing and curious looking robotic ants and post a few videos.

The original project created tiny 100 centimeter-scale robots and made progress toward building larger swarms of these ant-sized robots.

Several of the researchers have created robotic ants that are able to reconfigure themselves and assemble separately into larger robots in order to perform different tasks.

Exploring planets like Mars and even colonization are just some of the potential applications for robotic ants.

These intelligent robotic ants will work together, modifying their responsibilities depending on the obstacles they face.

“Robot swarms are particularly useful in situations where you need high redundancy. If one robot malfunctions or is damaged it does not cause the mission to fail because another robot simply steps in to fill its place,” Marc Szymanski said.

“Power is a big issue.” Szymanski noted. “The more complex the task, the more energy is required. A robot that needs to lift something (uses) powerful motors and these need lots of energy.”

A separate group of robots which were developed are called “Jasmine” and uses wheels to move around, while the smallest robotic ants in the project measure only three millimeters long – about the size of a carpet beetle.

The smaller robotic ants draw power from a tiny solar cell, while the Jasmine machines have an internal battery.

Szymanski is confident the project team is close to being able to mass produce the tiny robots, which can be made much like computer chips out of bendable printed circuit boards and then folded like paper into the needed shape.

“They’re kind of like miniature origami (folding paper),” he says.

Using inexpensive mass production techniques in constructing the robotic ants mean less to worry about if a robotic ant gets lost in the Martian soil, or falls off into a crater – its function would just be assumed by another robotic ant.

If that happens, your humble columnist believes the other robotic ants may feel some sort of “artificially programmed societal compassion” and attempt a rescue mission for the lost ant.

To learn more, visit http://www.i-swarm.org.