A 6-Legged Robot Stares at the Sky to Navigate Like a Desert Ant

WIRED | 2/13/2019 | Matt Simon
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In case you’ve been envying the desert ant Cataglyphis fortis lately, don’t. Skittering around the Sahara Desert, the insect endures temperatures so brutal, it can sometimes only manage foraging runs of 15 minutes before it burns to death. Making matters worse, the heat obliterates the pheromone chemical trails that ants typically lay for each other to navigate. Get lost out here, and you’re literally cooked.

Accordingly, desert ants have evolved superpowers. They look for characteristic bands of polarized light emanating from the sun, which we humans can’t see, to get their bearings. They also count their steps to nail down a distance traveled, making them the fitness trackers of the insect world. Combining these two sources of information, the ants can zig-zag across the desert in search of delicious dead insects and still find their way home with remarkable accuracy.

Light - Skill - Ants - Robots - Cars

Sensing polarized light is an indispensable skill for the ants, and perhaps soon it will also serve robots and autonomous cars. Researchers at the Aix-Marseille University in France report today in Science Robotics that they’ve engineered a six-legged robot, named AntBot, to find its way just like a desert ant. Not that your robo-car of the future will navigate like this alone, but by leveraging polarized light, the machines could add a useful sense to augment fickle systems like GPS.

Because we can’t see polarized light from the sun, it can seem unintuitive to us paltry humans. Basically, it's a particular direction of propagation of the light. “Try to imagine there are lines in the sky oriented in a certain direction depending on the position of the sun,” says bioroboticist Stéphane Viollet, coauthor on the new paper. “There is a pattern in the sky, and this pattern is used by the ant to measure the heading.” It's like a massive map painted across...
(Excerpt) Read more at: WIRED
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