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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
, 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
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.
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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
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.
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