Robot Attempts to Navigate As Well As a Tiny Desert

AntBot: A six-legged walking robot

Insects in general are unfailingly impressive with how intelligent and capable they are, with an absolute minimum of sensing and computing power. Where things start to get really interesting is when insects have to get clever in order to manage particularly challenging environments. Desert ants are a great example of this: While most ants rely on pheromone trails to navigate (they retrace their smell trails to get back to the nest), the heat of the desert means that pheromones don’t last very long. Instead, desert ants rely on a variety of techniques, including step counting, optic flow, landmarks, and most notably solar navigation.

These techniques seem like they could come in handy for small, inexpensive robots exploring out in the solar system, where GPS isn’t available and sophisticated sensors come with a mass and power budget to match. Today in Science Robotics, researchers describe how they built a robot with desert ant-inspired navigation tools, and were able to get it to wander around a little bit and still find its way home without GPS, SLAM, or anything more complex than some slightly fancy eyeballs.