A Texas A&M computer scientist who leads the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, has weighed in on a recent study that considers how fire ants’ digging and burrowing behaviors can contribute to designing more effective rescue robots. Dr. Robin Murphy commented that this new study, led by researchers at Georgia Tech, is the first of its kinds that looks toward natural design in order to improve man-made rescue efforts that deal with searching for survivors in disasters such as building collapses.
“Search-and-rescue robots have been used in 35 disasters,” she commented in a recent article in Popular Mechanics. “Most of the time the robots have been very successful, but they could have been more successful if they could handle this twisty, tortuous terrain. Understanding how animals get through these environments is hugely important.”
The study notes how fire ants, which are pound-for-pound among the most prolific and efficient diggers in nature, manage to dig so effectively in a wide range of soils, and navigate through the tunnels they bore with precision. The tunnels themselves are typically constructed with optimal diameters so that two fire ants can pass one another, without being too wide to cause slippage.
But perhaps the most compelling revelations of the fire ant study is how the fire ant itself adapts its body and legs according to width of the tunnel it is traversing. The article goes on to explain that:
“Although the ants zip through the tunnels pretty rapidly, the study reveals that the ants change their climbing posture depending on the tunnel’s structure. For wider tunnels, they adopt a sprawled posture with their legs thrown out wide, whereas for narrower tunnels they tuck their middle legs beneath the abdomen and use them to generate a forward thrust. In all terrains the ants use their antennae as extra appendages to grab on to the walls to prevent falls.”
The idea behind this study is to eventually create rescue robots that employ similar body structures, features, and digging mechanisms that the fire ant uses in helping to dig and maintain ant colonies. In recent disasters, such as the Oklahoma tornado, which left dozens of collapsed structures in its wake, the need for rescue robots that can safely locate survivors in a collapsed building without causing additional collapse is true necessity in improving disaster response. While current robotic designs continue to be iteratively improved based on past man-made designs, researchers and engineers hope that future designs will also include features more akin to that of the fire ant.