New Swarm Robotics System Takes Inspiration From Insect Pheromones

A swarm robotics system achieved more effective communication thanks to insect pheromones.
Brad Bergan

A team of researchers has introduced a novel technique for swarm robotics, taking direct inspiration from insect communication via pheromones, according to a new paper published in SAGE's Adaptive Behavior journal.


Swarm robots take inspiration from insect pheromones

In the last few decades, technological advances have helped guide the development of increasingly sophisticated systems that mimic naturally-occurring processes like biological mechanisms and animal behavior.

Within this scientific trend, a research team at the University of Manchester introduced a novel technique for swarm robotics applications — one that takes a cue from the way insects communicate via pheromones.

Pheromones are chemical substances animals and humans release to their surrounding environment — which sometimes triggers specific behaviors in other animals.

Benefits of pheromone-prompted behavior

For example, released pheromones can cause mating behavior, alert surrounding animals of a dangerous zone, mark territory, or signify the presence of food. In the paper, the researchers worked to artificially replicate that way social insects, like ants, use pheromones — with aims of improving the effectivity of communications in robot swarms.

"Our main idea was to develop a bio-inspired communication system based on social animals' pheromone communication systems," said Farshad Arvin, one of the researchers involved in the study, to TechXplore. "More specifically, we wanted to emulate how ants release pheromones and the behaviors that follow. We use the developed system in swarm robotics applications, and we are now investigating the possibility of testing it in real-world settings."

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Previous studies worked to create artificial pheromone systems with several distinct techniques. One used alcohol, RFID tags, and light as a collective substitute for chemicals that animals release. Another promising system is COSΦ, a system that emulates pheromone release in animals and humans with light.

Na Experimental Setup
The experimental setup of the researchers. Source: Na et al. / Manchester University

Robotics pheromone system works like fluid 

Arvin and his team's system is based on COSΦ, which also uses a model that describes how pheromones spread across space as time goes on. This model takes inspiration from how fluids or liquid moves through nature.

"To have a realistic model of the pheromone system, we had to model all the parameters of real pheromones, such as evaporation and diffusion, and consider the environmental impacts such as effects of wind," said Arvin, according to TechXplore. "The model we proposed is a reliable and realistic model that can imitate pheromone communication among insects."

Pheromone system prompts swarm member behavior

At present, the researchers' evaluation of the artificial pheromone system is moving forward in a series of experiments — wherein a swarm of small and mobile robots move around and adapt to varying environmental factors. The team's results were highly promising because their system enabled effective communication, triggering the desired group behaviors among swarm members.

"We developed a very realistic model of a pheromone system and systematically investigated the effects of various parameters in performance of the individual robots and the swarm," said Arvin, to TechXplore. "In addition, our paper introduces a robust, open-source experimental setup that can be used to implement complex behaviors typically observed in social insects."

This novel system — taking inspiration from insect and animal pheromones — might help enhance communication between individual robots working in a team to complete exploration missions in remote geographical sectors, under unfriendly weather conditions, and in complex environments.

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