On the basis of their size and limited brain power, ants have an uncanny ability to find their way home after lengthy foraging excursions. To figure out how they do it, scientists from Germany have developed an innovative, but surprisingly simple spherical ant treadmill made from styro foam.
Cataglyphis desert ants, which dwell in Saharan salt pans, have it tough. They’re forced to navigate themselves back home across a flat, bare, and hostile environment. Incredibly, these ants almost always succeed in this task, often taking the most direct route home possible.
To get a handle on these uncanny orientation skills so that we can one day exploit them to build better robots, a research team from the University of Freiburg, led by Matthias Witt linger, built a treadmill specifically for ants.
The spherical device consists of a simple styrofoam ball, which is suspended by a blowing air stream. To an ant placed atop the ball, the experience is not too far removed from its natural desert surroundings, or so the researchers say. The ant might feel differently it if could talk.
Even though the ant is tethered to the device, the spherical treadmill allows it to walk using its natural gait, even when it has to quickly move and change direction. The system is equipped with optical sensors, similar to the ones used in a computer mouse.