Toward Task Capable Active Matter: Learning to Avoid Clogging in Confined Collectives via Collisions
Frontiers in Physics
Social organisms which construct nests consisting of tunnels and chambers necessarily navigate confined and crowded conditions. Unlike low density collectives like bird flocks and insect swarms in which hydrodynamic and statistical phenomena dominate, the physics of glasses and supercooled fluids is important to understand clogging behaviors in high density collectives. Our previous work revealed that fire ants flowing in confined tunnels utilize diverse behaviors like unequal workload
... ions, spontaneous direction reversals and limited interaction times to mitigate clogging and jamming and thus maintain functional flow; implementation of similar rules in a small robophysical swarm led to high performance through spontaneous dissolution of clogs and clusters. However, how the insects learn such behaviors and how we can develop "task capable" active matter in such regimes remains a challenge in part because interaction dynamics are dominated by local, potentially time-consuming collisions and no single agent can survey and guide the entire collective. Here, hypothesizing that effective flow and clog mitigation could be generated purely by collisional learning dynamics, we challenged small groups of robots to transport pellets through a narrow tunnel, and allowed them to modify their excavation probabilities over time. Robots began excavation with equal probabilities to excavate and without probability modification, clogs and clusters were common. Allowing the robots to perform a "reversal" and exit the tunnel when they encountered another robot which prevented forward progress improved performance. When robots were allowed to change their reversal probabilities via both a collision and a self-measured (and noisy) estimate of tunnel length, unequal workload distributions comparable to our previous work emerged and excavation performance improved. Our robophysical study of an excavating swarm shows that despite the seeming complexity and difficulty of the task, simple learning rules can mitigate or leverage unavoidable features in task capable dense active matter, leading to hypotheses for dense biological and robotic swarms.