No, it's not a scene from a classic Simpson's episode, but rather an experiment that could lead to highly adaptable robots.
Last week, some 800 small black common pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) arrived at the ISS. The experiment, designed by Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon, is to determine how (and if) the ants will adjust to this otherworldly environment. Gordon is particularly curious to know if the innate, evolved behavioral algorithms that regulate their group behavior will still prove adaptive in microgravity environments.
Initially, the ants were divided into eight compartments, each holding one hundred. These barriers have since been taken down, allowing the ants to go from high density areas to those of lower density. The astronauts are watching the ants move around as they forage. Normally, when ant densities are high, each ant searches one small area in a circular 'random walk.' But when ant densities are low, they walk in a straight line, allowing them to cover more ground.
By analyzing their behavior, and how they adapt, it's hoped that the data can be used to eventually build flexible robots that can forage for themselves — or search for people in a building deemed too dangerous for humans. By performing the experiment in microgravity, the researchers can study how "interference" (in this case, lack of gravity) can be overcome by the ants (namely, how the loss of gravity interferes with their interactions and their ability to assess density).
"We have devised ways to organize the robots in a burning building, or how a cellphone network can respond to interference, but the ants have been evolving algorithms for doing this for 150 million years," Gordon noted in a Stanford statement. "Learning about the ants' solutions might help us design network systems to solve similar problems."
NASA says the ants will live out the reminder of their days on the space station and that the astronauts should not fear an infestation (only sterile worker ants were sent on the mission).
This is not the first time that ants have been used to inspire robotic systems.