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Robots manipulating animal behaviour

Little larger than a thumbnail, the cubic insect-like robots or 'insbots' are technological marvels. Developed under the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative of the IST programme as the project Leurre, the insbots are fitted with two motors, wheels, a rechargeable battery, several computer processors, a light-sensing camera and an array of infrared proximity sensors.

When dropped into a small experimental area with a maze of curved walls, the robots move, turn and stop. They can navigate their way safely by avoiding the walls, obstacles or each other, follow the walls, congregate around a lamp beam or even line up. When placed in the same area with cockroaches, the robots quickly adapt their behaviour by mimicking the animals' movements. Coated with pheromones taken from roaches, the infiltrator robots even fool the insects into thinking they are real creatures.

The roach pheromones ?a blend of molecules developed by the project partner from the Université de Rennes I, France ?enable various forms of communication, including recognition and attraction. For example, when a roach detects another roach, it may approach it, move away or stop. Cockroaches were chosen here because their pheromones are better understood than those found on other gregarious insects, such as ants.

According to coordinator Jean-Louis Deneubourg, from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the project had its origins in collective intelligence and behaviour in animal society, as well as the tradition of using artificial agents to test theories about animals. "Robots have already been used to interact with some animals, such as bees. But they cannot react to the animals' response," he says. "In our project, the autonomous insbots call on specially developed algorithms to react to signals and responses from individual insects. This results in a chain action or reaction between the artificial and natural agents ?a two-way interaction that is
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