Remember your childhood movie "Antz"? There, we were able to explore the world of, well, ants and see them create brilliant things like when they made a living ladder to carry its people towards the surface from the rising water levels underground. Such acrobatics, much wow!
Well, that particular scene actually happens in real life. (At least the building part, not the talking though.) Fire ants (Solenopsis Invicta) have an amazing mechanism that enables them to make rafts to help them float during floods. But it doesn't stop there; when the water subsides, these ants cling to exposed plants and build a tower around it as a short-term shelter until they can build another underground home.
Georgia Tech researchers wanted to study how and why these ants do it. So they set up a camera and unintentionally left it recording for an hour after the tower was built. After speeding the recording ten times, they noticed that the tower wasn’t as static as it really is. They noticed that the middle of the tower is actually slowly sinking.
“When you speed it up, the ants on the surface are a blur and underneath the blur you can see the slow sinking movement of the tower,” says Craig Tovey from Georgia Tech.
They also noticed that, after further experiments, the ants at the bottom move out because of the weight of the ants above. “The rest of the tower is gradually sinking, while the ants at the top keep building it higher and higher,” says Tovey. “It’s kind of hilarious.”
In the researchers’ past studies, the ants' building of resilient structures like rafts and towers is only due to how they follow simple behavioural rules or their collective intelligence without the need of a lead or an ant in charge.
Small as they may seem, knowing more about them will have many applications in the field of robotics, says Tovey. Small robots could be deployed in search-and-rescue missions that can climb and cross different obstacles just like them. “I would so love to be able to send a thousand little robots into a collapsed building after a fire or earthquake and find survivors,” Tovey says.
Could this be the technology that Hiro Hamada in the movie “Big Hero Six” was working on--microbots? Or is this one of the "secrets" Ant-Man, from a Marvel movie, knows?
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