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How ants in space could help researchers build a better robot

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On January 12, the International Space Station crew unloaded the recently-arrived Antares rocket, which contained precious cargo like food, spare parts and tiny satellites. Along for the ride was a colony of ants with a very unique purpose: to demonstrate how the ever-efficient insects adapt to life in microgravity.

If you’ve ever had an ant invasion in your home, you know this pattern: A single ant finds a source of nourishment and then turns into a milling mass of ants ferrying food back to the colony. Meanwhile, individual ants fan out to investigate the rest of the room.

These behaviors do not come from the queen or some other central force. Instead, they are built on innate algorithms that ants developed over millions of years, according to Stanford University. Ants have poor vision, so they rely on smell and touch for guidance while exploring. When the number of ants is more dense, they are more likely to touch each other, which triggers them to explore in tight spirals. If they run into a low number of other ants, they walk in a straight line. This combination means that they spend more time thoroughly exploring an area that is interesting enough to attract other ants and cover a lot of ground while exploring other regions.

It’s a system that interests robotics researchers. If a fleet of robots is exploring a collapsed building, they can work more quickly if they don’t have to rely on a central commander to tell them where to go.

But what happens if you disrupt the very basis of the ants’ communication system? Stanford University researchers decided to answer the question by sending ants into space, where low gravity would alter how many times they encounter other ants. About 70 ants were placed in a container that shifted in size to reveal different behaviors.

Stanford biology professor Deborah Gordon
Stanford biology professor Deborah Gordon

“In microgravity, the struggle to walk interferes with interactions, in particular the relation between density and interaction rate,” said biology professor Deborah Gordon, who designed the experiment. “Thus each ant has less information about density, and so less information to influence its path shape and searching behavior.”

How the ants react could inform robot behavior in scenarios where radio communications have been interrupted. If it’s smoky or dusty and they can no longer communicate, the robots could develop a new system on the spot that still allows them to search an area thoroughly and efficiently.

Gordon, whose interest in ants began with a broader interest in central control-free systems like brains and embryos, said it is “very exciting” to send an experiment to the ISS. Her team will now study video from the ants’ time aboard the space station to work out how they responded to microgravity.

4 Responses to “How ants in space could help researchers build a better robot”

  1. They are sending the ants to space just for fun, just to see how the ants ‘fly’ or don’t fly in space. The rational that they want to learn the ants’ algorithms to develop robots running around in broken buildings is just a ruse.

  2. Babu G. Ranganathan

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing net energy decay, even in an open system). Einstein showed that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson does not create mass from nothing, but rather it converts energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy.

    The supernatural cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    EXPLAINING HOW AN AIRPLANE WORKS doesn’t mean no one made the airplane. Explaining how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Maker behind them. Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)


    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.