All posts by Elizabeth Allen

Sun and memories help ants navigate backwards

Desert ants rank among the best insect navigators in the world, and now a scientific study shows their navigational skills are even more sophisticated than previously thought.

Scientists have revealed how the insects – which walk backwards when carrying heavy loads of food – use the sun’s position and visual memories of their surroundings to guide them home.

Ants were known to use both processes but, until now, these were assumed to be two separate reflexes that required ants to be facing in their direction of travel. Instead, researchers have shown that ants walking backwards will occasionally look behind them to check their surroundings, and use this information to set a course relative to the sun’s position. In this way, the insects can maintain their course towards the nest regardless of which way they are facing, the team found.


The findings suggest ants can understand spatial relations in the external world, not just relative to themselves.

The surprisingly flexible and robust navigational behaviour displayed by ants could inspire the development of novel computer algorithms – step-by-step sets of operations – to guide robots.

An international team of scientists, including researchers at the University of Lincoln and the University of Edinburgh, studied a colony of desert ants in Seville to see how the insects navigate when transporting different-sized pieces of food. Although they usually walk forward when carrying small pieces of food, ants often walk backwards to drag larger items to their nest.

The team sunk barriers into the ground to create a one-way route to the nest. They then gave ants either a small or large piece of cookie, and observed how they made their way home.


Dr Michael Mangan, based in the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, specialises in modelling the navigational behaviour of insects and explores how this can translate into cutting-edge robotics. Dr Mangan said: “These amazing animals navigate through complex habitats despite their tiny brains and poor quality eyes.  Here we show how a simple “peeking” behaviour allows homing ants to combine directional information from multiple. Revealing their navigational strategies could lead to development of new sensors and control systems for robots.”

Previous research has shown that ants walking forwards find their way by comparing what they see in front of them with visual memories of the route. The team found that ants traveling backwards instead use the sun’s position in the sky to guide them.

To ensure they stay on course, backward-walking ants also routinely drop what they are carrying and turn around. They do this to compare what they see with their visual memories of the route, and correct their direction of travel if they have wandered off course.

Future studies could help to determine the interplay between different regions in the ant brain that enables the insects to use and combine different forms of navigation, the team says.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The research was carried out in collaboration with other scientists at the Australian National University and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The study has been covered by media outlets around the world, including BBC News Online.

Virtual blacksmith simulator features on BBC Look North

A pioneering project by computer scientists at the University of Lincoln to create a virtual blacksmith simulator was featured this weekend on BBC Look North.

Led by Dr John Murray from the School of Computer Science, the project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and is designed to revive the process of crafting techniques and craftsmanship for a new generation.

Together with his students, Dr Murray has created a virtual reality blacksmith’s forge so that people can experience the environment of a forge and try out the techniques for themselves using bespoke software that integrates human motion capture tracking sensors. Users can also produce their own artefact, created in the virtual reality forge, by 3D printing it as a keepsake.

Providing a 21st century take on blacksmithing, the Heritage Craft Simulation project has been developed in partnership with Chain Bridge Forge in Spalding.

BBC Look North featured the project on Sunday 18th December 2016, and the programme is now available to view on BBC iPlayer (from 03:00):

Visit the University website for more details about the project:

Robots emerging as agricultural co-workers

fig1Advanced engineering could be the solution for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, as technology for producing service robots reaches maturity. An expert in robotics from the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, UK, will discuss the latest developments in the sector during Agri-Tech East’s ‘Pollinator’ event on 11th October 2016.

Professor Duckett, who leads the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems, will present at the event – Robo-Cropping – The Potential for Precision Robotics in Agriculture – alongside Dr Andre Rosendo from the University of Cambridge and Professor Simon Blackmore from Harper Adams University.

Professor Duckett says that agricultural robotics bring benefits of reduced labour costs, economic sustainability, less waste and better use of natural resources. The technology has the potential to be deployed at any time of day and impact positively on the productivity and life quality of agricultural workers.

His Lincoln team, part of the University’s Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, has been working on multiple projects in this area including 3D mapping techniques for improving the precision of agricultural sprayers and a new project in 3D imaging for broccoli harvesting, which is producing strong results and attracting interest from end users such as the Brassica Growers Association.

Professor Duckett said: “Already we can envisage agricultural robots that could perform multiple tasks, for example, inter-changeable tools would allow switching between tasks such as seeding, tillage, spraying and harvesting. You could also have robots for agriculture and food production that would perform other useful tasks at the same time such as surveillance, keeping a watchful eye on crops, livestock and expensive farm machinery, while carrying out their primary duties on the farm or in the factory.”

A number of machinery companies are investing in the technology and a project in 3D imaging for robotic weeding is currently being carried out with a local company, Garford Farm Machinery, world leaders in automated weeding equipment.

Professor Duckett believes that the underpinning technologies for robotic perception, learning and action are already reaching the required level of maturity to leave research laboratories. So what steps need to be taken to transition from lab to work on the farm or in the factory?

“The big challenge now is how to cross the so called ‘Valley of Death’ between the development of useful prototypes by researchers and the mass production of agricultural robots which are available to the farmer, “ he said. “We need investors to come forward and believe in what we are doing. There is also a need to convince farmers that we can produce robust and effective machines that can really do the job.”

Rather than full automation, Professor Duckett sees a future of environmentally friendly ‘robot helpers’: “Robot helpers will increase the productivity and life quality of agricultural workers and help to deliver the sustainable intensification of agriculture that will be needed to help feed a growing population while minimising the impact on the environment. Smart robots that run on battery power rather than fossil fuels could also be part of the solution for a cleaner, greener future.”

Professor Duckett, Dr Rosendo and Professor Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University are scheduled to speak at NIAB Park Farm, Cambridgeshire for the Agri-Tech East ‘Pollinator’ event on 11 October 2016: ‘Robo-Cropping – The Potential for Precision Robotics in Agriculture’.

Boxik – an addictive new mobile game from a trio of talented students

An addictive new mobile game developed by a trio of student programmers who teamed up at a one-day coding jam has been released across Apple and Android platforms.

Boxik is a retro style puzzler inspired by classic handheld games such as Tetris. Its simple but engrossing gameplay challenges players to spin a multi coloured cube to catch incoming objects of the corresponding hue – a task that requires surprisingly demanding mental and manual dexterity. With a synth-soaked 80s style soundtrack, the game is unforgiving for first-timers but quickly engrosses players determined to test their screen tapping talents to rack up higher and higher scores.

Firefrost Games

Boxik was designed and developed by Ryan Burton, Adam Walker and Neville King, all second year undergraduate students in the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, UK. The three teamed up at the University’s on-campus AppFest coding jam in October 2015, where they won a competition to propose a viable mobile application set by the University. The enterprising undergraduates have been working on the game alongside their studies ever since – launching their own company, called Firefrost Games, and website to bring their app to market.

One of the students Adam Walker, originally from Bridlington, said: “It has been great to work on this project together and to see it through the whole production process, from conception and design, to programming and launching to market. Previously when we have built games, it has been as part of jam and has only resulted in short, rough versions of our ideas. It is so exciting to see the final, polished version of our game and we are so pleased to be launching it to market.

“We’re really happy with the final result – Boxik is a very simple yet effective game and it is quite addictive! We designed it for people to play on the bus for example, when they have time to pass, and have found that it encourages players to compete with themselves to beat their top score. We feel Boxik fits extremely well with the current app market trend of effortless and uncomplicated games, which are proving very popular with people of all ages.”

Technology guru Jason Bradbury, who has taught the students in his lecturing role in Lincoln’s School of Computer Science, said: “It’s impressive to see a team of students develop a game so thoroughly from concept to release, handling all the work involved in getting an app out there and onto people’s devices. Just as importantly for the gamers among us, in Boxik they’ve created a good casual game with extremely simple gameplay. I’m very proud but not surprised at what they’ve achieved. Firefrost Games could be ones to watch.”

The game has also already secured a prestigious industry honour: winning a special achievement award from Rockstar Games – the company behind major game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto. Representatives of the global games company, which has a substantial base in the city, tested a pre-release version of the game as special guests at the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science End of Year Showcase in May.

Dr David Cobham, Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, said: “We are immensely proud of what Ryan, Adam and Neville have achieved in such a short space of time. Not only have they demonstrated exceptional coding skill and dedication to produce such a professional app, but they have also shown they have the ability to translate an idea into something people all over the world can download and enjoy.

“Throughout the process, they have worked together as a team and tackled the legal and licensing aspects of launching a business and bringing an app to market. Now they have a fully functioning and very exciting company to their name, and we look forward to seeing their future endeavours.”

Boxik is free to download for Apple and Android devices.