Researchers Made the First Walking Robot That Can Navigate Without GPS

Not with magic, but with properties gleaned from a certain unwelcome picnic guest.


When designing robots, researchers have long turned to the natural world for inspiration, from robots that can leap and bound like dogs to aquatic robots that can swim like squids. And by turning their attention to the tiny picnic crashers on the ground, a team of French researchers may have stumbled on a discovery that could alter the landscape of exploratory robotics.

Engineers from the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Institute of Movement Sciences announced today that they’ve successfully built a robot that autonomously navigates without GPS. Not with magic, but with properties gleaned from a certain unwelcome picnic guest. Their findings were published in the journal Science Robotics.

“Desert ants do not rely on pheromone trails to find their way,” Julien Dupeyroux, one of the team’s leaders and a Ph.D student, tells Inverse. “They refer to visual and proprioceptive cues to keep the knowledge of their position relative to the nest entrance updated. This is called ‘path integration’. We decided to completely mimic this strategy and implement it on an ant-like robot.”

Bugs like ants, and also cockroaches, are at the foreground of bio-mimetic robotics because they are good at getting into nooks and crannies. 

Abhishek Dutta/UConn.

Dupeyroux and his team spent two years developing an optical compass that capitalizes on the same polarized light that Cataglyphis desert ants use to travel hundreds of meters in search of food before then returning to their nest in a straight line, without getting lost. When combined with step counting abilities, the compass allows AntBot to explore its terrain much like the desert ants, covering up to 14 meters before returning to its base, on its own, within a single centimeter. To achieve this kind of spooky accuracy, the engineering team put AntBot through six months of outdoor navigation tasks, running 52 trials throughout the winter months, in below freezing temperatures with high winds.

The grueling regimen proved that AntBot, with its six legs and light weight, could succeed where GPS-reliant autonomous robots could not - in especially rugged terrain, disaster areas and densely populated urban areas, with the eventual hope of extraterrestrial exploration being added to that already impressive list.

“We wanted to provide robotics with robust, reliable navigation systems,” explains Dupeyroux. The industry standard of GPS may work for vehicles, but isn’t suitable for tiny robots. And GPS’ reliance on good weather means there’s a gap in exploratory robotics that needs to be filled, and urgently. To help encourage more wide-spread innovation, AntBot is an open-source project now, with a frame built from 3-D printing techniques in less than two weeks.

Dupeyroux’s team also hopes that the success of AntBot will inspire engineering teams to embrace behavioral investigations into species we may otherwise write-off, whose own biological innovations could alter the ways we navigate the world.

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