Ants know physics and use it to dig their own tunnels

A team of researchers studied their features and found that ants adopt all the best engineering solutions to make them. The ant-hills are meters long and capable of holding up for years.

Ants could teach us something useful to improve the technology of future digging robots. How? Through the techniques they employ to build their ant hills. These tiny critters would use physics to make their tunnels that are meters long and able to stand for years. The discovery was made by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) who studied the internal characteristics of the ant-hills using X-rays.  The results were published in the journal of the American Academy of Sciences (Pnas) and suggest that ants adopt all the best engineering solutions to create their pathways.

Ants engineering to build ant hills

These insects are known for their cooperation and industriousness. They work all day long, and you will often see small holes on the ground with mounds of sand from which hundreds of ants enter and exit. However, penetrating and observing the ant-hills from the inside is complicated and the researchers, led by Jose Andrade, have thought to use a machine for X-ray tomography. In the experiment, colonies of harvester ants that are very common in the United States were observed. The insects were placed inside earthen containers that were scanned at 10-minute intervals. The objective of the study was to observe the techniques used to build the tunnels and which grains of soil and sand were removed during the work.

The observation during the excavation of the ants

The observation showed that the ants, during the excavation, make "arches" in the ground near the actual tunnels that are intended to reduce the pressure of the earth and thus reduce the risk of collapse. Moreover, the colonies of insects are able to choose the best angle of incidence for the descent. Every material, for its own characteristics, has a limit angle beyond which it landslides. According to the researchers, the ants are able to quickly understand which is the limit angle of descent depending on the material on which they are working.

Thanks to the study have been identified very simple but efficient behavior of ants while digging their tunnels that could soon be adopted by mini-robot diggers to be used for underground exploration or as miners.

For the construction of robots, experts are taking more and more inspiration from the world of insects. Recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records Robeetle, a small robotic beetle weighing just 88 mg.

Stefania Bernardini