It seems that the U.S. Army may be on the verge of a “liquid metal” type technology seen only on the Terminator movies. They may achieve this technology through the use of modular robotics.
These tiny robots have the ability to reconfigure themselves into a variety of different shapes for a variety of different applications.
However, what is interesting about the Army’s research is that it is not looking to Hollywood for ideas. Instead, the U.S. Army is looking to mother nature; in particular, ants! The Army Research Office is studying how South African fire ants interact with each other to change the overall structure of the colony.
The Army Research Office reported that fire ants may hold the key to how modular robotics could function outside of the the lab. The report stated:
“An ant’s swarm intelligence leading to continual construction could also be applied to modular robotics research or possibly inspire new methods for actively reconfiguring interconnections in complex networks.”
Not only is the project looking at how the ants communicate with each other, but also how they can entangle themselves to form various structures and how they dissipate energy to change the state of the entire colony.
The idea stems from how the colonies can survive floods. During a flood, the ants of the colony can entangle themselves to create a tiny floating raft.
Yet, what is really interesting about this technique is that the ants have the ability to dissipate energy to create a cohesive property amongst themselves, but they also have the ability to dissipate that energy in a way that creates a hydrophobic property. This hydrophobic property repels the colony from the flood waters, not only aiding in their flotation, but also making them difficult to sink…even when a load is applied to the raft of ants.
If researchers can recreate this type of entanglement and energy dissipation in modular robotics, it has significant implications for the field and the Army. The report states, “This could lead to design rules for new types of active, reconfigurable materials for structural morphing, vibration attenuation and dynamic load mitigation.”
More research is required, but one advantage this study can lead to is that modular robots could be created that can respond to certain environment changes without the need of a centralized controller. Meaning, researchers may able to imitate an ant’s action and reaction to various external forces. Just as an ant would respond to a gap between the branches to create an “ant bridge”, a colony of modular robots could be able to do the same without human intervention.
Another interesting aspect of the research is the implications for self-healing structures. The colony’s precise method of storing and dissipating energy is like nothing encountered before. Dr. Samuel Stanton, program manager at ARO, stated:
“This robust response is not describable by existing fluid or solid mechanics theories and the phenomenon has never been seen in any other active matter such as bacteria films or liquid crystals.”
If this response can be recreated in a lab and applied to self-healing materials, then the overall life of certain products would be extended exponentially.
Researching ants in regards to modular robotics is still in its infant stages. However, the preliminary stage does look promising. If the U.S. Army can recreate the ant’s techniques in modular robots, we could easily see an onslaught of self-healing materials and modular robots being used by the army in our lifetimes.
Moreover, it is very feasible that the U.S. Army could use these technologies in tandem to create their own artificial ants, and their applications would be nearly endless.