The research focuses on how fire ants are able to move so well in as confined a space as a tunnel while keeping the tunnels themselves structurally sound. This type of data can then be used to create robots that conduct better search and rescue operations, an application that is also being looked into by other universities and that the National Science Foundation has provided funding for.
By varying the size of the soil particles and the moisture content of the soil, the research team was able to look for any overlying patterns in the ants’ tunnel construction, regardless of conditions. Tunnel diameter was the one constant when soil was varied. The diameter was always roughly 3.5 mm, which is proportional to the height of an ant.
The other major finding of the research, related to the first, is how the ants use their antennae. Whereas it was previously believed that the antennae were used solely to navigate, this research shows that that isn’t always the case. When falling down a tunnel, ants demonstrated the ability to grab onto the side of a tunnel using their antennae, a feat that would not be possible if the tunnel was not the correct diameter.
These results can be applied towards creating search and rescue robots that are capable of working in subterraneous environments with minimal interference from humans, a potentially life-saving application.