Festo unleashes new robotic swarm of ants and butterflies

Biology-inspired robotics company Festo has revealed its latest animal robots -- cooperative ants and lightweight butterflies.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read


The family of animal robots created by German robotics company Festo is growing. As part of its Bionic Learning Network, the company has introduced two new robots: a swarm of ants that can operate cooperatively, and a butterfly robot that leverages the insect's lightness.

The ant robots -- called BionicANTS -- are not just inspired by the insect's physical body, but by its swarm intelligence.

"Like their natural role models, the BionicANTs work together under clear rules," Festo wrote. "They communicate with each other and coordinate both their actions and movements. Each ant makes its decisions autonomously, but in doing so is always subordinate to the common objective and thereby plays its part towards solving the task in hand."

Each 13.5-centimetre BionicANT is visually arresting, too: their components are laser-sintered and finished with visible conductor structures, with electrical circuits attached on the outside -- giving them the role of form as well as function.

A radio module on the ant's abdomen allows the robots to communicate with one another, and piezo-ceramic bending transducers are used in the actuators, allowing the legs and pincers to move with fast, precise accuracy. A 3D stereo camera in the ant's head allows it to see, and an infrared optical sensor on its underside records the distance it covers over the floor. Meanwhile, two on-board Li-Po batteries provide up to 40 minutes of wireless power, before requiring to be recharged in a dock via their feelers.

"The BionicANTs also come very close to their natural role model in terms of design and constructional layout. Even the mouth instrument used for gripping objects is replicated in very accurate detail," Festo said. "The pincer movement is provided by two piezo-ceramic bending transducers, which are built into the jaw as actuators. If a voltage is applied to the tiny plates, they deflect and pass on the direction of movement mechanically to the gripping jaws."

The delicate eMotionButterflies also use collective behaviour via an intelligent networking system.

"Flying is a recurring theme in the Bionic Learning Network," Festo said. "The developers channelled their knowledge gained from the projects on the BionicOpter and the eMotionSpheres into the bionic butterflies. They combine the ultralight construction of artificial insects with coordinated flying behaviour in a collective."


This system consists of ten high-speed infrared cameras installed in the space in which the butterflies fly. They track infrared markers on the robots, transferring this data in real-time back to a central master computer; this then coordinates the movements of the butterflies, preventing them from colliding with one another -- quite a feat, considering the 50-centimetre wingspan of the butterflies.

Yet each weighs just 32 grams, with 2 servo motors, the electronics and 2 small Li-Po batteries -- enough for just 4 minutes of flight, with a charging period of 15 minutes -- packed onto a tiny, laser-sintered body.

"With the butterflies themselves, Festo is taking another step into the areas of miniaturisation, lightweight construction and functional integration. The eMotionButterflies impress with an intelligently employed mechanical system and the smallest possible power units in the tightest space. The reduced use of materials enables the true-to-nature flying behaviour," Festo wrote.

Like all of Festo's robots, these are unlikely ever to see consumer production; rather, they're for the purposes of future industrial robot development. That doesn't mean we can't dream, though. You can read more about them on the Festo website.