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In the Future, Your Phone Will Be Built by Thousands of Robot Ants

The German automation firm Festo is building a bunch of the sci-fi-esque critters, which it thinks could become the future of manufacturing.

Mark Hay

Mark Hay

Images via Festo

Late last month, the German industrial automation firm Festo unveiled a product that it hopes will help to revolutionize manufacturing: hand-sized, autonomous, collaborative ant robots, or BionicANTs (for "Autonomous Networking Technologies").

These mechanical bugs, to be demoed at the Hannover Messe (basically ComiCon for industrial automation nerds) later this month, are each about 5.3 inches wide and equipped with stereo cameras and floor sensors to view their surroundings, pincers for gripping, six legs for scuttling, and chargers in their antennae that attach to rails to juice up their two onboard lithium batteries for 40 minutes of autonomous action at a go. Importantly, they can use radios in their abdomens to communicate with each other, allowing them to coordinate their movements like an actual ant colony and, based on pre-programmed rules, solve problems, and collectively complete complex, diverse, and large-scale tasks efficiently.

This isn't Festo's first foray into animalistic industrial robots. The company's Bionic Learning Network laboratory, the team behind the BionicANTS, is dedicated to studying natural phenomena and translating the efficiency of organic evolution and motion into engineering techniques. Since 2006, when they pioneered fish-shaped drones, they've developed a robotic menagerie that includes jellyfish, penguins, seabirds, dragonflies, and even a bionic kangaroo that was a test to see if Festo engineers could replicate the marsupial's extremely efficient, elastic hopping motion. And this year, at the same time as they unveiled the BionicANT, Festo also unveiled its eMotion butterflies , capable of autonomously fluttering in coordinated swarms.

Yet for all the fanfare around the company's inventions, Festo never markets its animal robots directly to factories. It views these creations as proofs of concept for more abstract technologies. And that's really a shame, because it'd be amazing to see a factory of swarming robo-ants at work.

I recently spoke with Elias Knubben, head of Festo's Bionic Learning Network and the lead on the BionicANT project, about scientific wow factors, the future of bespoke and flexible automated factory work, and the imminence of the internet of things in all of our lives.

VICE: Your project was mainly about studying coordinated, autonomous systems modeled on ant behavior. So why did you think it was important to you to replicate the whole body of the ant and not just its mind?
Elias Knubben: It's important to understand that the way we work is that we do future concepts, quite similar to concept cars. We try to bring as much innovation as possible [into our projects] and find the kind of realization of that [innovation] that can be easily understood by our customers but also young people, for example, who we want to fascinate with technology.

We do not just use [coordination] algorithms. We also look towards the design. [It makes it] easier for everybody to understand what we're talking about.

Doing these sort of future concepts, we're able to go a little further than we would usually go in our product development and use this platform for testing new actuators, technology, printing circuits, and so on.

A lot of your lab's work in the past focused on replicating the physical motion of animals. Yet in this project you focused on the hive mind of ants. Why look into this instead of just focusing on the their form and motion?
We are always searching for topics that are relevant to the field of industrial innovation. We believe that in the future we will have autonomous systems working together in a collective way—like you said, "hive mind" creatures.

How similar is your algorithmic hive mind to an ant's actual hive mind?
This model's communication is wireless, not chemical like it is with real ants. The similar thing is the way they are able to collaborate doing a complex task with very little intelligence.

Each [real] ant itself doesn't have a lot of calculating power, so they have to share their calculating power to solve the task together. This is also what we do with our control algorithms. So in the end we collaborate with rules that are quite similar to the rules real ants have.

What sort of machines would you put these technologies in? What will they be able to do?
Nowadays, in many [machines] we have one centralized control board or control device and from that we control all kinds of transporting, handling, gripping, off-switching elements. But in the future, we think that many products will have their own decentralized intelligence.

We will have more functions in single components that will need more intelligence as well. So it will help if all those components are connected to each other and will communicate and figure out their own strategies to work in an efficient way together.

This is actually what ants do, so we think that their way of working together could be an option for many applications.

What does this allow us to do in machining and factory work that we couldn't already do with powerful computers coordinating many automatic machines?
The machines we are using now are mainly developed to do one single thing very fast, very often, and very precisely. But they are not made for changing [tasks] and being very flexible.

Having many agents with a low level of possibilities that, if they work together, are able to solve bigger tasks are in the end much more flexible. So it's possible to configure those kinds of swarms so that they can do one thing now, and tomorrow or five minutes later, if they want to, they can configure themselves to another system and do something else.

So basically one day a manufacturer could make cars and the next day he could make plane wings or something like that using robots with this flexible technology?
Maybe not such big changes as from car to airplane. But to produce consumer goods like furniture or phones, you have to produce thousands of them to make them cheap. We think that later on products will be more individually designed for [individual] customers. So the machinery has to be able to switch very fast to produce one smart phone today and the next minute another one that is a bit different in function or design or whatever.

When will we see your ant coordination technologies used in factories?
Parts of it are being used already. I think the development will be very fast.

In Germany, we have this [concept of] industry 4.0, the industrial revolution where everything will be connected—what's called the internet of things, or cyber-physical systems.