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Festo's 3D printed giant bionic ants communicate wirelessly to get things done
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By Alec | 3Ders

Those of you interested in next-generation robots will have doubtlessly heard of German automation company Festo, that seems to have a patent on imaginative robotics that have been inspired by animal behaviour. Every spring they seem to debut another inspiring robot that leaves the fans amazed by its abilities. Remember the hopping kangaroo they unveiled last year? While many of their designs feature 3D printed parts (for prototyping), the bodies of their newest creation are almost entirely 3D printed: a group of collaborating ants.

Festo is always seeking to be inspired by the animal kingdom, and these gigantic artificial BionicANTs (each is 13.5 cm long, about the size of a hand) are no different. If anything characterizes ants, it’s their social nature and instinctive ability to cooperate, so it’s no wonder that Festo’s engineers have sought to instill those qualities in their robot insects. Mimicing the behaviour of their miniscule counterparts, these 3D printed ants have been programmed to make individual decisions that relate to a common goal, specifically that of moving a large objects from point A to point B.

And as you can see in the clip above, they’re rather good at it. While something they wouldn’t be able to do on their own, a system of cameras and sensors enable the ants to determine their own location and the dimensions of the object. A set of grabbers on their chins subsequently enable the ants to grab the object. And through a wireless communication network, the trio of ants work together.

These BionicANTs have been developed as part of Festo’s ‘Bionic Learning Network’ program, fitting in the theme of ‘Join the Network’. They are just one in a series of projects on small collaborative robots that mimic communal insect behaviour. One of the other projects Festo is currently working on instead focuses on how butterflies interact with each other. The final goal of these projects is, of course, the creation of intelligent robots capable of working in factories and other locations where things can go wrong and where environments can change.

These 3D printed ants are an excellent first step in that direction. As Festo explained to reporters, the BionicANTs essentially consist of 3D printed carapaces filled with electronic circuits. The plastic bodies have been created using laser sintering 3D printing technology, and have been fitted with conductive antenna that enables the robots to individually charge their own batteries by pressing them against a power source. The legs and grippers have been made from ceramic actuators to ensure quick, compact and precise movement.

These 3D printed wonders of the animal kingdom can be seen live at the world’s biggest industrial technology trade fair: the Hannover Messe. This fair will be held from 13 to 17 April and will be the perfect place for 3D printing fans to experience the upcoming 3D printing innovations of 2015. If you happen to visit, you can see these BionicANTs in action at Festo’s stand alongside their collaborating butterflies.

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