On March 28th, 2013, researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology published a study detailing how their robotic ants were able to mimic their biological counterparts. The study, aimed at discovering how biological ants get around their dark, maze-like tunnels, used sugar cube-sized robots that have some of the smallest linear actuators ever used.
The ants use ‘microactuators,’ microscopic mechanisms that control the motion of the object to which they are attached, as well as wheels. Each ant must be able to move free from wired control limitations, so they have been fitted with wireless controls and are programmed to do various tasks through computers. The microscopic size of these actuators requires them to be extremely robust, being able to stand up to continual motion over long periods of time and efficient at using energy.
The study itself has proven that these robots are capable of working together at a number of programmed tasks, and using synthetic pheromone signals to orient themselves. When scattered, they are able to regroup and organize themselves according to their priority level or group together and move a large object by working together.
Everyone has a use for these little guys, it seems. Their ability to swarm together and disperse at pre-programmed intervals provides useful information in the field of nanotechnology. Military applications include rescues missions that are too dangerous for human soldiers. These robots could pass through areas almost completely undetected and converge for tasks that require the strength of numbers. Even industry has a use for them. These ant robots could improve safety and manufacturing processes.
This study also pushes forward the possibility of nanobots being used in the medical field. Just to get an idea of the size of a nanobot, imagine an atom. A nanobot is commonly at least a tenth the size of an atom. Large numbers of these bots can perform surgeries, help destroy cancerous cells or destroy any other unwanted diseases within the body. This technology is still a long way off, but this study spreads light on the methods that could be used to make these robots converge and disperse.
The possibilities of large linear actuators are in full swing in the field of automation for homes and individuals, but technology is just beginning to delve beneath the surface of microactuators. They are being used to break new ground in areas our parents only read about in books.