Design of a robotic ant to model collective excavation
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Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are social insects who work together to excavate and build large underground nests. In addition to the challenges of working in narrow spaces and dark environments, the ants must also avoid creating traffic jams which could negatively affect the colony's construction efforts. The traffic jams could be created if too many ants are going to the same destination which could happen if the workload is not shared wisely. We hypothesize that a part of the ant’s traffic jam avoiding strategy is to be inactive, or lazy. A model is needed to test a hypothesis and to study which excavation work sharing methods are effective. Robots are often used as physical models to study animals in general and their behavior. Unlike animals, robots can be precisely controlled as well as equipped with sensors to systematically measure parameters of interest. This thesis documents how robotic ants were designed and built, as well as outline how the robots will be used to study ant behavior. Data showed that tunnel excavation was proportionally faster in a test bed containing multiple active digging robots. An increase in the number of robots, however, caused an increase in the amount of energy required to propagate the tunnel forward. The increase in the energy came from the fact that multiple robots were colliding and jamming.