Bionic ants could be tomorrow's factory workers

By Amy Pollock Robotic ants the size of a human hand that work together could be the future of factory production systems. The developers, German technology firm Festo, say it's not just the unusual anatomy of real-world ants that inspired the bionic version - the collective intelligence of an ant colony was also something they wanted to replicate. The bionic ants cooperate and coordinate their actions and movements to achieve a common aim - in the same way individual ants complete tasks for the whole colony. Festo says that in the future production systems will be based on intelligent individual components that adjust themselves to different production demands by communicating with each other. The ants are able to complete complex tasks, like transporting large, heavy loads, that they wouldn't be able to achieve individually by working together. The robot features a stereo camera and a floor sensor that together allow the ant to work out its location and identify objects to be grabbed by grippers at the front of its "head". The antennae double up as chargers for the lithium batteries that power the ants' movements. A radio module in the abdomen allows the ants to communicate with each other wirelessly. Just like their natural counterparts, the ants have six articulated legs. Festo says the way the ants are constructed is unique too. The bodies of the bionic ants are made from a 3D printed plastic powder melted layer by layer with a laser. The circuitry is also 3D printed on top of the body. Festo says this is the first time the techniques have been combined. The ceramic legs and pincers are flexible actuators that move quickly and precisely without using much energy. Again Festo says the application of this so-called 'piezo' technology to miniature robots like its bionic ants is a first. The bionic ants are part of the developer's Bionic Learning Network. Festo works on transferring natural phenomena to engineering techniques and equipment. The technology firm says the factories of the future will have to produce customised products, meaning that they will have to adapt to different production requirements. Festo plans to exhibit its robotic ants in April at the world's biggest industrial technology fair, Hannover Messe, where the German engineering company will also show off other recent creations like cooperative artificial butterflies.