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Arranged rows of countless numbers of ants go in order and smoothly to their colonies in the ground through tunnels that they built themselves, extending over several metres, but how do ants dig these tunnels with such ingenuity?
A recent study published in the journal “Pance” revealed the secrets of these remarkable architectural structures through 3D X-ray imaging and computer simulations, which concluded that the mechanism by which ants build their colonies can be used to develop robotic mining machines.
Jose Andrade of the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues established miniature ant colonies in a container containing soil and 15 Western harvest ants.
The position of each ant and each soil grain was then captured by high-resolution X-ray scans every 10 minutes for 20 hours.
The X-ray results gave the researchers minute details about the shape of each tunnel and the grains that would be removed to create the tunnel.
The team then created a computer model using those scans to understand the forces acting on the tunnels.
The size, shape and direction of each bead in the model were recreated with the ability to calculate the direction and magnitude of the force on each bead, including gravity, friction and cohesion caused by moisture, and the model was accurate to an accuracy of 0.07 millimeters for the scanner.
The results indicate that as the ants dig into the soil, they tend to turn around the axis of the tunnel, forming what scientists call “arcs” in soils that are larger in diameter than the tunnel itself.
The presence of these arches reduces the loads that affect the soil particles inside the arches, as the ants build their tunnel, and they can easily remove these particles to extend the tunnel without causing any collapse, as the arches make the tunnel stronger and more durable.
The ants also tended to dig relatively straight tunnels that descend at the relaxation angle of the granular material—the steepest angle of descent or regression relative to the horizontal plane at which the material can stack without retraction—which in this experiment was about 40 degrees.
According to the researchers, the ants follow a very simple behavioral algorithm that has evolved over time, which co-researcher Jose Andrade expressed by saying: “In a wonderful way – perhaps a coincidence – the ants have developed a digging technique that complies with the laws of physics, but is incredibly effective.”
The team believes that if the behavioral algorithm can be analyzed further and eventually replicated, it could find its way into application in automated mining bots, either here on Earth or on other space objects where mining is already dangerous, especially to humans.
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