Ant-inspired Walking Robot Navigates Through Polarized Light Without GPS

- Mar 07, 2019-

If you travel through Boston Dynamics and Ants, what do you get? You can see the robotic Antbot of the French National Science Research Center (CNRS), which uses an ant-like navigation system to move around without the help of GPS.

While navigation seems like a simple task, in practice, like many areas of robots, it's much harder than you think. Most navigation robots use GPS, which is a very mature technology. However, it is prone to drift, making it inaccurate on a small scale and not available in all areas, such as in densely populated areas, where trees block signals from satellites. CNRS researchers decided to take inspiration from nature to solve this problem and study how ants navigate the environment.

Cataglyphis desert ants face a special challenge: they need to travel long distances to find food, and because the desert temperatures are too high, they cannot use pheromones to navigate. However, they are able to walk hundreds of meters in direct sunlight to find food and then return straight without getting lost. They measure heading by using polarized light as a "celestial compass" and collect information on the speed of motion based on the steps taken and the movement relative to the sun. With heading and distance information, they can navigate perfectly.

Similarly, Antbot uses an optical compass to detect polarized light to determine its direction, using an optical motion sensor to measure its distance. This allows the robot to explore complex environments, such as ants, and always be able to safely return to its base. After completing the 14-meter (46-foot) flight, the robot returned home with a precision of 1 cm (0.4 inches).

The robot has six legs that can travel on rugged terrain, making it ideal for walking where wheeled robots are difficult to walk. Researchers hope that it will eventually be used to assess disaster areas and even explore extraterrestrial soil.