The ants are coming

Today, Susan saw our first ant in a while, a sure sign that spring is coming, even if the snow hasn’t heard the news yet.

Then, I saw the New Scientist article, 3D-printed bionic ants team up to get the job done. Festo, the company featured in the article was perhaps thinking that there aren’t enough ants in the world. They probably know that it was once claimed that ants collectively weighed as much as all the humans. However, while that was possibly true in the past, human size has expanded both collectively and individually, putting us well in the mass lead.


Perhaps to remedy that situation, Festo is creating artificial ants about the size of a human hand. They make individual decisions that result in cooperation to achieve a common goal, which they couldn’t accomplish alone. Using a GoPro-like head-mounted camera and floor sensors, they develop a sense of their surroundings, then communicate using a wireless network. Their bodies are 3D-printed with electronic circuits overlaid. When they need to recharge they can go automatically to a charging station to be ready for more work.

This is not a far-out experiment, but an example of how assembling various state-of-the-art technologies can lead to impressive, sometimes surprising results.

The ants remind me of the “brownies” in The Mote in God’s Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974). These were small, dextrous beings who could build or repair anything in an efficient, organic way. They also reproduced at an explosive rate. The Brownies seemed to help humans in many ways. In the early days of their interactions, humans developed an affection for them. But later they discovered that the Brownies posed a dire threat.

Our Wellfleet Public Library now has a MakerBot 3D printer. Maybe we can make our own bionic ants.

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