AntBot is still in development, but the team is already collaborating with car companies to incorporate these navigation techniques into existing systems. Eventually, the hope is that these tools will complement the deficits of GPS and other methods, and even help steer autonomous vehicles.

And AntBot itself could eventually be put to work. Clocking in at just five pounds total, the robot traipses across terrain like a sturdy, six-legged spider. AntBot’s wheel-free design means it might do well on rough or rugged surfaces—places that other robots or humans are unable to access. That could really come in handy in the wake of natural disasters, says Xinyan Deng, a mechanical engineer and roboticist at Purdue University who was not involved in the study.

Before any of that happens, though, there are a few kinks to work out. At the moment, AntBot isn’t sensitive enough to low levels of light to be functional when the sun sets (desert ants, too, are less active at night). And AntBot isn’t yet equipped with collision avoidance technology—something that’ll need to be addressed before it gets anywhere near a self-driving car.

What’s more, the robot’s maximum range of travel is still only a few dozen feet; for AntBot to measure up to the navigational superpowers of its namesake, it would need to successfully traverse a few hundred miles—close to the distance between New York City and Washington, D.C., says study author Julien Dupeyroux of Aix-Marseille University. In other words, AntBot still has a ways to go.

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In the meantime, Deng says she’s already impressed with the robot’s capabilities. And while the technology was initially motivated by a biological phenomenon, Deng is enthusiastic about the possibility of this relationship becoming bidirectional. “There could be dual objectives,” she says. “The robot has a new sensing design, but on the other hand, it could provide biologists with a platform to decode how locomotion works in ants.”

And ultimately, this goes to show just how powerful biological solutions can be, Deng says. Despite only having a few thousand neurons in their brains (compared to the billions in ours), desert ants work navigational wonders that humans have yet to fully achieve.

“A lot of robotics applications rely on a lot of complicated sensors and machine learning,” Gruev says. “But we can take inspiration from these little ants and see how they accomplish simple navigational tasks with limited computational ability. You don’t need sophistication and complexity if you take a step back and think outside the box.”

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