Friedrichshafen, Germany — Are these the insects that spoil Iron Man's picnics?
Festo AG & Co. KG used additive manufacturing technology to create robotic ants — the company calls them BionicANTs — that mimic both the appearance and functions of the real insects.
BionicANTs were designed on bionic principles, with the shape and functions of real ants. They also use autonomous networking technologies — yes, ANTs — that help the plastic versions cooperate and communicate with each other in the insect world.
Festo, an Esslingen, Germany-based industrial controls and automation company, laser sinters the BioncANTs legs and body from nylon. The 135-millimeter-long ants each weigh 105 grams.
Circuitry for the ants is applied by LaserMicronics GmbH in Garbsen, Germany, as technology scout and service provider for the laser direct structuring (LDS) process. This involves application of ProtoPaint LDS, a special lacquer from LPKF Laser & Electronics AG in Garbsen, Germany. LDS lacquer application is followed by selective laser activation of the conductive additive in the lacquer to make it conductive just where circuit tracks are then required to be gold plated.
Each ant makes its decisions autonomously, but in doing so it is always subordinate to the common objective and thereby plays its part towards solving the task in hand, according to Festo.
Festo is part of a Bionic Learning Network, a group of companies, universities and institutes that use technology to mimic animals - both to kick-start innovation and inspire young people to take an interest in technology. Other examples of the BLN's work include a gripper that's like a chameleon's tongue, and mini-butterflies that fly together using GPS technology.
The company presents its BionicANTs as “a stimulus for production of the future with the cooperative behavior providing interesting approaches for the factory of tomorrow, with future production systems founded on intelligent components adjusting themselves flexibly to different production scenarios and taking on tasks from a higher control level.”
Circuitry on the ant legs provides component functions such as the antenna with a charging contact function and piezo-ceramic bending transducers for leg movements. The rear-body circuitry accommodates a radio module for ant-to-ant communication, a signal processor and a charging/conversion unit to convert 8.4 volts from the two lithium-ion batteries in the central body to the 300 volts needed for transducers on the legs and the gripping jaws, which is distributed to the movement actuators by a ring circuit on the central body.
An optical sensor chip in the “abdomen” of the central body records distance covered according to the floor structure and the head has a 3-D camera.