Scientists in the US have built and tested robotic ants that they say behave just like a real ant colony.The robots do not resemble their insect counterparts; they are tiny cubes equipped with two watch motors to power the wheels that enable them to move.
But their collective behaviour is remarkably ant-like.
By being programmed simply to move forward toward a target and avoid obstacles, the robot colony finds the fastest way through a network or maze.
The secret, the researchers report in the open access journal Plos Computational Biology, is in their ability to take cues from one another - just like an insect swarm.
"Each individual robot is pretty dumb," said Simon Garnier from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, lead researcher on the study. "They have very limited memory and limited processing power."
"By themselves, each robot would just move around randomly and get lost... but [they] are able to work together and communicate."
This is because, like ants, the robots leave a trail that the others follow; while ants leave a trail of chemicals - or pheromones - that their nest mates are able to sniff out, the robots leave a trail of light.