Scientists use tracking tech to uncover the secrets behind ants' foraging

The animals are actually quite intelligent.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A desert ant.jpg
A desert ant.


New tracking technology which uses computer vision has been used by scientists to track individual desert ants over their entire foraging lives revealing some pretty interesting conclusions on how the animals navigate their natural environment . 

This is according to a press release published by the University of Sheffield published on Friday.

The researchers discovered that the ants learn incredibly quickly - memorizing their homeward paths after just one trip. They also noted that the ants’ outward routes evolved over time indicating different strategies for exploration.

The new technology used to collect all this information has been named CATER (Combined Animal Tracking & Environment Reconstruction) and is now being used to study other animals. The system uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to track the position of an insect and can even function despite background clutter, obstructions and shadows.

“We captured this data during a summer field trip, but it has taken 10 years to build a system capable of extracting the data, so you could say it’s been a decade in the making,” said Dr Michael Mangan, Senior Lecturer in Machine Learning and Robotics at the University of Sheffield and the lead inventor behind the new system. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by how these insects can navigate long distances - up to 1km - in such forbidding landscapes where temperatures are over 50 degrees celsius.

Pen and paper

“Up until now, desert ants have been tracked by hand using pen and paper, which involves creating a grid on the ground with string and stakes and monitoring their behavior within the grid. Another method used to get around this is by using a Differential Global Positioning System (GPS) - but the equipment is expensive and low precision. 

“The lack of a low-cost, robust way to capture precise insect paths in the field has led to gaps in our knowledge about desert ant behavior. Specifically about how they learn visual routes, how quickly they do so, and how strategies they employ that might simplify the task.”

Insights collected from experiments conducted with CATER are already being turned into commercial products by a University of Sheffield spin-out company called Opteran. These experts are reverse engineering insect brains to produce highly robust autonomy using low cost sensors and computing.

“Desert ants are the ideal inspiration for next generation robots - they navigate over long distances, through harsh environments, and don’t rely on pheromone trails like other ants, or GPS and 5G like current robots,” Mangan added in the statement

“We hope that our tool will allow us to build a more complete picture of how insects learn to pilot through their habitats, bringing new scientific knowledge and informing engineers about how they could build similarly capable artificial systems.”

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