Brit Liggett

Incredible Floating Fire Ants Help Develop Waterproof Materials and New Robotics

by , 04/26/11
filed under: biomimicry

waterproof materials, waterproofing, fire ants, fire ant raft, ant raft, floating ants, floating ant raft, floating fire ant, amazonian ants, robotics research, biomimicry

The Solenopsis Invicta — also known as the red fire ant — has recently become an unlikely partner in the research of waterproof materials and robotics. The ants, which are incredibly resilient, have developed the ability to team together to form a raft to survive the flooding of their habitat. The entire colony links arms and legs and floats above the water‘s surface – incredibly, even the ants on the bottom layer stay dry! Researchers are currently looking into ways to mimic the ants’ water-defying teamwork to develop new materials and robots to help humans. If you don’t believe these ants, check out the incredible video after the jump.

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Nathan Mlot, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and his team have been among the first to research fire ant colonies as a whole instead of focusing on individual ants. It has been previously found that though one ant placed in water starts to flail, a thin layer of air stays around the ant and acts as a personal life raft. When the ants are dropped in water as a colony they lock together with their limbs and mouths and form a steady raft that can survive the swells of a river. The ants were discovered to be haphazardly connected — mouths attached to legs and arms and bodies — with one thing in common, close proximity pushes each ant’s air pocket against the next. With their powers combined, they are not only buoyant but waterproof.

Researchers actually had to push the ants eight inches under water before their waterproof seal broke and have been freezing the ant rafts with liquid nitrogen in order to study their structure under a microscope. They are hoping to use the ants’ clinging technology to make more efficient waterproof materials. They also think this tactic — and other ant behaviors — could further robotics. One lone ant can’t float, but one hundred can, so therefore perhaps one hundred simple robots could perform a much more complicated task without having to be complex machines. Researchers like Edward O. Wilson talk about ant colonies as one being; all of the ants work together to get tasks done and without each other, can’t survive. It seems we could learn a lot about togetherness from these tiny little insects.

Via The Washington Post

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