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James McLurkin, Robotic Ants Inventor
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James McLurkin holding one of his robotic ants

James McLurkin holding one of his robotic ants

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McLurking building circuits for his robotic ants at his workbench
“An advisor once told me, ‘A wise man finds no distinction between work and play.’ I definitely agree with that.”

Close-up of a robotic ant
Close-up of a robotic ant

Robotic Ants Inventor

“The goal is to explore ideas about robot communities using one of the best examples around­­nature.”

At MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, James McLurkin is helping push the frontiers of robotics by combining ideas from engineering with biology.

McLurkin built his first robot, Rover, at age 15. For his thesis project as an MIT undergraduate student, he decided to develop a group of smaller robots that could work together.

While working on this project, McLurkin observed a large container of ants he kept on his desk. He designed and built 12 “ant” robots. Measuring about an inch per side, each ant is powered by a tiny internal computer that runs three motors. Each ant’s “feelers” and other sensors allow it to detect and go around obstacles and move toward light. These mechanisms cause the robots to interact in ways that mimic the behavior of real ants.

Like McLurkin’s real ant community, many robots working together can succeed at a task even if an individual robot fails. For example, if a thousand “ants” went out to clear a minefield, they could succeed even if half or more blew up or missed their targets.

“We can use biology as a lever to pry open the secrets of intelligence. We could then take robots and possibly change things about biology.”

Next: How Has McLurkin Continued to Use Biological Principles in His Engineering Work? ›

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