Navigating Autonomously

Could ants help us design navigation systems for robots?

© iStockphoto/arlindo71

In the future, there will be robots. Whether they will cater to our every need or hunt us down in packs. It remains to be seen. Either way, one feature robots will need to achieve their true potential is autonomous navigation.

Most robots either require a pre-programmed route or simply react to the environment whenever they encounter an obstacle. Very few can find their way from one point to another on their own. Some engineers are trying to overcome this problem by studying ants.

The Cataglyphis is an ant found in the Sahara Desert. Unlike other ants, the Cataglyphis doesn't rely on pheromone trails to navigate through its environment. Scientists believe that the ants use a combination of visual piloting, path integration and systematic search [source: Möller et al.]. Engineers hope that by gaining a deeper understanding of how creatures like the Cataglyphis navigate, they can build robots with similar capabilities.