Ants in space may help NASA develop robotic systems

The population of the International Space Station got a bit of a boost recently with the arrival of several hundred ants!  They were delivered on January 12th on board a Cygnus commercial spacecraft, and scientists will be studying how their behavior changes in a low-gravity environment.  

The ant experiment currently on board the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

The ant experiment currently on board the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

Over millions of years, ants have developed complex search algorithms for locating food.  As ants move around, they interact by smelling and touching each other.  Ants then search for food differently depending on how many ants are around them.  If they detect a lot of ants nearby, they can move about randomly, having the comfort that the whole area will be searched.  However, if they haven't got very many friends around, they venture out on straight paths, making sure all the ground gets covered.  NASA hopes that studying how the ant behavior changes in microgravity will help us better understand how they coordinate their searches.  This actually has lots of useful applications for any system that relies on the optimization of a path.  For example, ant redistribution strategies could help us design better robot deployment, or improve the routing of vehicles.  There is even an entire class of computer algorithms called "ant colony optimization algorithms', because they are based on how ants behave when they try to find a path between their colony and food supply. 

This is a really neat example of biomimicry, or the use of elements and systems found in nature to inspire solutions to human problems.  One of the best examples of this is velcro; its design is based on the way the needles on burs (the prickly little balls that stick to your clothes and/or pets) are shaped.  NASA has used biomimicry in the past, too - they've used the structure of lotus leaves to help design a coating that prevents dust from sticking to the surface of spacecraft.