How ant colonies, butterfly swarms and lizard tongues are teaching industry a lesson

(CNN)From the organizational strength of the ant colony, to the unseen communication in a swarm of butterflies, nature has always beaten man to it.

But now researchers at Festo, a German industrial control and automation company, are taking their cue from the natural world to gain valuable insights that could one day transform industry.
Its three latest projects -- BionicANTs, eMotionButterflies and its tongue-like FlexShapeGripper -- all mimic nature to find solutions to the problems thrown up by the coordination and logistics necessary to carry out mechanical robotic tasks.
"With all of our products we want to show how innovative technical ideas can facilitate the future of work and how principles from nature can change and improve industries," a Festo spokesman told CNN.
    The aim of its butterfly project, for instance, shows how communication in flight could one day work for complex networks in the workspace.
    "We wanted to show how several objects could be coordinated without colliding in a three- dimensional space thanks to a multifaceted network," he said.
    "Although we don't expect our butterflies to be flying through factories any time soon, their integrated network systems may well be used as solutions for industrial logistics applications or could lead to a guidance and monitoring system in future factories."

    Swarm tech takeover

    Its prototype artificial BionicANTs, meanwhile, takes its cue from the deeply hierarchical and highly organized world of the ant colony."
    Our ants are able to communicate with a network on their own. Working together they can achieve things they could not do by themselves," he said.
    "This cooperative behavior provides interesting approaches for the factory of tomorrow."With greater flexibility and individuality demanded of automation in the future, the ants, he said, show how a networked group can communicate with each other while at the same time take orders at a higher control level.
    "Using these types of networks will allow industries to better cater to the individual requests of customers."
    At the core of the research is swarm technology; the study of how large groups such as bees, ants and butterflies can act in concert as a group but at the same time maintain enough individual volition to avoid collision.
    "Swarm technology has improved in a huge way in recent years," said.
    "Our butterflies get their instructions from a master computer in much the same way as an air traffic controller operates at an airport, coordinating all the different flying maneuvers each butterfly performs.
    "This automated controller checks the position of all the butterflies and makes sure there will be no collision. A human pilot is not required."
    The ants, on the hand, communicate with each other and come to an agreement about what to do next.
    "Even though the ants are part of an overall networked system, every ant is an individual unit which can react independently to a situation," he said. "Swarm technology has a huge significance for the future of mechanization and is improving very fast."

    Learning from lizards

    The chameleon-tongue robot -- a liquid-filled rubber gripping device which mimics the grasping abilities of the predatory lizard -- could be used to handle small objects, replacing the finesse of human motor abilities in the workplace.
    "The tongue has the ability to grab differently-shaped objects and it can also grab more than one thing at once," he said. "It could be used, for instance, in lightening the load of small but time-consuming jobs on the factory floor or even to clean up a room by taking things back to their usual places."
    He said the importance of these prototypes shows the direction of industrial automation -- that robots must not only take their orders from a central computer but show the capacity for individual action as well.
    "The components have to be able to manage their own actions while knowing what the other members of their network are doing," he said.
    "Bionic products are leading to new ideas about how industrial processes could work. At the moment the development is furious and the changes are fundamental.
    "Who knows what the status quo will be in 10,15 or 20 years time."