Want to know how ants think? Look to the robots.

A study published in PLOS Computational Biology explains how researchers used tiny robots to investigate ant behavior.

The researchers wanted to know if real ants use geometry to navigate their environment. They sent the robots through mazes where all paths diverged at the same angle, and mazes where paths diverged at different angles, increasing the chances of a less efficient route.

The robots are only programmed to avoid obstructions as they search for a target. Along the way, they trigger an overhead projector to leave a trail of light for other robots to follow. These light trails and photoreceptors take the place of antennae and pheromones, the chemicals animals use to communicate with each other.

The study found that the lone ant may not understand the geometry of his environment, but the colony does. Individual robots, like ants, moved randomly through their environment until they found their target. But groups of robots, like colonies of ants, signaled each other with trail markers and collectively found the fastest way.

So when you see that trail of ants winding their way across the sidewalk, you can trust they’ve found the quickest route. Of course, if it’s a trail of robots, be concerned.

[The above text is a transcript of this video.]