“Safety nets” built by army ants could help engineers design robot self-healing swarms

Teamwork is not just a human characteristic: the army’s ant colonies will form living “scaffolding” to protect members from falling.

Insects are blind and do not have a designated leader, but according to new research, they can use simple behavioral rules to develop these safety structures without the need for direct communication.

Once a scaffolding was built, the working ants were almost 100% protected from falling off steep slopes.

Understanding how to design such complex structures could help engineers develop self-healing materials and swarm robotics, the researchers said.

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Army ants in the rainforests of Central America will build scaffolding from their bodies to help them cross the steep terrain. The “safety net” maintains its structure even on practically vertical slopes

There are over 200 different species of army ants (Eciton burchellii), most found in the rainforests of Central and South America.

To cross the treacherous forest floor, the working ants form “highways” and “bridges” with their bodies.

Researchers have discovered a new type of “architecture” of the army, a living scaffold that prevents ants from slipping and falling prey on the colony if the route becomes too steep.

An international team of entomologists studied the structures created by the armed ant colonies in Panama.

Scientists have redirected the colony's feeding path to a platform that could tilt up to 90 degrees horizontally.

Scientists have redirected the colony’s feeding path to a platform that could tilt up to 90 degrees horizontally.

Scientists redirected the colonies looking for routes on a platform that could tilt up to 90 degrees horizontally and observed the creation of this scaffold.

There seems to be a sweet spot: anything below 40 degrees could not have caused a scaffold to form, according to their report this week in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Much steeper inclinations “have led to larger, faster-growing structures,” according to a statement.

“Scaffolding is also more likely to form when many workers carry heavy prey,” said biologist Matthew Lutz, co-author of the study.

Practically no ants fell once a scaffolding was installed, even on vertical surfaces.

Anything below a 40-degree incline is unlikely to cause a scaffold to form.  The steeper the slope, the faster and larger the structure

Anything below a 40-degree incline is unlikely to cause a scaffold to form. The steeper the slope, the faster and larger the structure

“It is remarkable how quickly these structures form in response to interruptions as they cross slopes,” Lutzsa said.

“They really are a form of self-healing, receptive infrastructure.”

The army’s ants are the largest on Earth and each queen has the ability to lay several million eggs each month.

Millions of workers constantly feed on food, consuming up to 500,000 larvae, eggs and other tasty pieces every day.

Each ant is only a quarter to half a centimeter in size, but the feeding route of a colony can be more than 325 meters long and 60 meters wide.

Scientists still do not fully understand how ants form these super-scaffolds: they are practically blind and, while they have a queen, there is no central authority when it comes to movement as a unit.

Scientists still do not fully understand how ants form these super-scaffolds: they are practically blind and, while they have a queen, there is no central authority when it comes to movement as a unit.

Scientists still do not fully understand how they form these superstructures: Although they have a queen, there is no central authority when it comes to movement as a unit.

In addition, army ants are virtually blind and rely on pheromones to communicate.

Researchers – which included experts from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany; Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia; New Jersey Institute of Technology; and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico – theorized ants can feel how much they slip and spontaneously form these scaffolds when they lose their grip.

Army ants are the largest species of ants on Earth and each queen has the ability to lay several million eggs each month.

Army ants are the largest species of ants on Earth and each queen has the ability to lay several million eggs each month.

“Our model closely matches the experimental results, without requiring ants to communicate with each other or assess the size of the structure,” said co-author Chris Reid, a researcher at Macquarie University.

“Army ants are small, blind and have no leaders or plans to lead them, yet their ability to generate sophisticated group-level behavior from simple local rules is extremely valuable to many areas of engineering, including swarm robotics. .

Breaking the code on how to generate these structures with little input or information would be an advantage for robotics, architecture and engineering.

A swarm of miniature robots could be sent to a disaster site and form a structure needed to help recover, whether it was “programmed” into their network beforehand, the authors wrote in The Conversation.

Other ants also create structures: colonies of fire ants will form “rafts” to drive a flood safely.

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