The painful bite of the fire ant is the scourge of many a traveller exploring remote areas of the southern US, but rescue robots inspired by their ability to navigate tunnels could be a far more welcome sight for those trapped underground.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology studied the insects using high-speed cameras for a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). They found the ants use their antennae as extra limbs to navigate the narrow corridors at sprinting speeds of nine body lengths a second without slowing down to pass their nest-mates, often running right over them.

By studying their behaviour in artificial tunnels, the researchers found that despite using their limbs, antenna and segmented bodies, the ants constantly made mistakes and slipped, but rapidly recovered maintain the same speed.

They also used a CT scanner to study tunnels made in the ants’ natural environment and found whatever the grain size of the material they dug through, the tunnels were always a constant diameter, equivalent to one body-length, which ensured they could catch themselves when they fell.

The researchers believe rescue robots could be built that use the same principle to build structures from the loose materials in landslides and rubble piles in which people are buried following a disaster, creating a temporary structure for them until they can be rescued.

This article was first published on the Strategic Defence Intelligence website. For more information, please click here.