I was approached by NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) to help with a project called Little Inventors. The premise of the project was to unleash students’ creativity and have them design inventions and a handful of some wonderful inventions was selected to have prototypes creat
To begin the project I was provided the following drawing and description of the invention.
Le SCAF sert à communiquer avec les fourmis, car, avant de dépenser des millions de dollards à essayer de parler à des extraterrestres, il faut d’abord aprendre à communiquer avec les “intraterestres” c’est-à-dire les fourmis ou les autres insects. L’études des phénomenes de communication des fourmis est un prérequis pour cette invention. Un émetteur-récepteur de phénomenes serait situé sur une cloche de verre que l’ont aurait placé sue une fourmi. De la cloche, des fils seraient reliés à un haut-parleur, pour émettre les paroles de la fourmi, et à un écran et un clavier, pour émettre des phénomenes.
SCAF is used to communicate with ants, because before spending millions of dollars trying to talk to aliens, it is first necessary to communicate with “intraterestres”, ie ants or Other insects. The study of the ant communication phenomena is a prerequisite for this invention. A transmitter-receiver of phenomena would be located on a glass bell that would have placed it on an ant. From the bell, wires would be connected to a loudspeaker, to utter the words of the ant, and to a screen and a keyboard, to emit phenomena.
With this information in hand I was at a total loss… I mean, it is very true. How can we expect to talk to extra-terrestrials if we can’t talk to intra-terrestrials? So I started researching Ants. Well, I didn’t expect to get sucked into youtube watching ants, but it happened. Of course many of us know that ants leave pheromones to communicate with other ants, but I knew that in my basement workshop I would have a hard time identifying these scents. I started looking for a better way of “listening” to them and I immediately asked myself if they make sounds. At one point (can’t remember the reference I read that while they don’t really make much noise some ants rub their legs along their spine when they are upset similar to the way a cricket makes it’s sound but at a much lower volume. Maybe I could harness this? Or maybe there was something else…
As luck would have it the Little Inventor, Justin, was able to join our Make613 Meetup and we had a great brain storming session together. There were many ideas bounced around such as using other ants as receptors to identify the pheromones but we agreed that we would study the ants using sound. I have to say, Justin’s English was much better than my French and we were able to easily communicate and share ideas back and forth.
So with this in mind I ran home to my workshop and started rummaging through my parts and found enough hardware to bring the idea of listening to the ants to life.
- Microphone sound level sensor
- Aruino Uno
- Two Buttons
- I2C LCD
- Power Adapter
- Some Wire and connectors
After putting the electronics together I was left with a troubling question… How do I turn any sound created by an ant into a language? I have to admit, I struggled with this question for quite a while and one evening it hit me. This was probably one of the most weight lifting experiences of the project as up until this point I really had no idea how I was going to pull this project off… You see early on in the project I had planned to fake the moon landing…. I mean I had planned to fake listening to ants… But I now had a plan to really listen to what they had to say. You see I theorized that if they could make noise they didn’t necessarily need to speak but we could translate noise into the English / French alphabet. If you ignore accents the two alphabets both have 26 letters. We don’t know if they speak English or French but let’s hope so. So how did I surmise we could translate what they had to tell us?
For the programmers out there, I figured if we ran a loop 26 times and sampled the microphone each time increment a counter if the ant was making noise we would get one of the 26 alphabet letters back out. In other words, if the ant made noise 3 times when sampling we would assume that he meant to tell us that he was spelling the letter C and if the next round he only made noise once he might be telling us the letter A.
Awesome, now I had a way to move forward and some excitement grew as I worked to complete the project. The next big task was to design the enclosure for both the electronics and the live ant(s). When talking to Justin he had suggested that the ant(s) be contained inside a glass dome. So I went shopping and found some spice jars which I thought might be a perfect enclosure for containing the ant when listening to it. After bringing the jars home I pulled out my calipers and made a bunch of measurements. I turned to my favorite 3D modelling software Fusion 360 (which is free for makers / enthusiasts). After a few hours of modelling I started up the 3D printer and let it run over night.
The next morning I began assembly and started my mission to find an unwilling ant to try and hear what he had to tell us humans. As it turned out this was definitely the hardest part of the project! You see it is currently spring in Canada and often in the spring I have a few ants trying to move into my house. They typically don’t make it past the dogs or my family who seem to instinctively seek and destroy. I turned to my wife for a bit of help. I hadn’t told her much about the project, so when I told her I wanted to capture a live ant I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me. The next evening we were in the kitchen and she spotted what she considered an intruder and instantly with out notice squished him. I almost cried and she realized I wasn’t kidding! So a few hours later she shouted for me to come quickly as she had captured a precious ant for me. When going to collect the prized specimen I realized she had inadvertently captured the ant with the edge of the cup. Another disappointing incident…
The next evening I came home to find three upside down cups around the dinning room. Success! I now had some live participants. I wasn’t really sure what would happen when we put a live ant in the enclosure and I waited until I presented the finished project at the following Make613 meetup and invited NSERC and the Little Inventors. Unfortunately Justin was not able to join us but we did place a live ant inside the SCAF and everyone watched… As we watched in anticipation letters started scrolling across the display. And low and behold after watching for a few minutes the letters HUNGRY were strung together. It is likely that the ant who had been captured a few days previously was indeed trying to tell us something and we all look forward to listening to these very interesting intra-terrestrials in the coming days.