Robot pheromones make machines act like ants

If you’ve ever had an ant infestation, you’ll know they have a tendency to follow each other around – like a beautifully uninhibited, but surprisingly organised, conga line. That’s thanks to pheromone trails that ensure every ant is on the same page.

It’s basic, but effective, and scientists have long wanted to create a similar system for robots. Now, the University of Lincoln has come up with something that shows a great deal of promise. Using cheap, readily available components such as LCD screens and a USB camera, they’ve created COS-phi: the robot pheromone.

The fake pheromones are displayed as visual trails on the screen, and as you can see in the video below, as soon as a robot picks up the “scent”, it’s compelled to give chase – albeit sometimes in the wrong direction. Hey, it’s a work in progress after all.

Attempts at mimicking pheromones in the past have considered other options, such as light and sound, to simulate the insect system of collaboration. This, however, is considerably cheaper – and surprisingly simple. Mixing the LCD screen and USB camera with an open-hardware micro-robot and an open-source localisation system produces pretty solid results.

The setup may look basic, but as Farshad Arvin, the PhD researcher in Computer Science who led the project, explains, it’s perfect for pheromone simulation. “It allows us to simulate a virtually unlimited number of different pheromones and showcases the results of their interactions as a gray-scale image on a horizontal LCD screen which the robots move on. The system means that we can produce precise and high resolution trails, control the diffusion, evaporation and density of the pheromones, and encode individual pheromones using different colours.”

“COS-phi also simulates the interaction of different pheromones that can amplify or suppress each other, resulting in complex swarm behaviours, just as they do in the natural world.”

The next step is experimenting with diffusion, and more complex environments with added obstacles. I’m betting on the robots: I’m sure they can outsmart a bunch of ants.

Then again… watch robots fall over like drunks at closing time.

Image: Sancho McCann, used under Creative Commons

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