Harvard Researchers Develop Termite-Like Robotic Construction Crew [Video]

Feb 14, 2014 05:05 AM EST

Harvard researchers have developed robots that work like termites to build complex, three-dimensional structures, without depending on a boss.

These bots construct structures using 'group intelligence.' Currently, they can build pyramids, buildings and towers using foam bricks, without relying on an external communicator or a foreman to guide them. They can build staircases to climb and add bricks wherever required.

Researchers are hopeful that in the future, these de-centralized bots can help build colonies on other planets.

The autonomous construction crew is developed by engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

According to researchers, the new TERMES system shows that robots can build complex structures without relying on an external commander. This system "requires simple robots that cooperate by modifying their environment."

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 "The key inspiration we took from termites is the idea that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor, and secondly that you can do it without everybody discussing explicitly what's going on, but just by modifying the environment," Radhika Nagpal, from Harvard SEAS, principal author of the study, said in a news release.


The bots developed by the Harvard team essentially mimic the concept of stigmergy used by termites. Stigmergy is a process where individual parts of a system communicate with each other by changing and sensing their environments. Termite mounds are a classic example of the concept at work. Bee hives, cells in the body are other good examples of how unconnected parts can come together to make intricate, complex structures.

"In insect colonies, it's not as if the queen is giving them all individual instructions. Each termite doesn't know what the others are doing or what the current overall state of the mound is," said Justin Werfel, a staff scientist in bioinspired robotics at the Wyss Institute and a former SEAS postdoctoral fellow, according to a news release.

Nagpal's robotic construction crew can adapt to changes in the environment. Each bot in the colony mimics the activity of other bot. If one of the robots breaks, it can be replaced without halting or delaying construction speed. Also, the TERMES can accommodate a large colony of workers without compromising on efficiency.

Goodbye Foreman!

Usually, construction begins with somebody drawing a blueprint and discussing how to go about it. In the next step, a group of people work under a foreman who oversees the construction project.

A supervisor makes construction easier by instructing workers. However, as the group of workers grows to accommodate hundreds or thousands of members, the foreman becomes a hindrance. According to the researchers, a centralized controller, especially in a dangerous environment, presents "a single failure point that could bring down the whole system."

"It may be that in the end you want something in between the centralized and the decentralized system-but we've proven the extreme end of the scale: that it could be just like the termites," said Nagpal. "And from the termites' point of view, it's working out great."

Bug-Inspired Bots

Termite-like robotic construction workers aren't alone. Other researchers, too, have copied Mother Nature's idea of 'collective intelligence' and created bots that fly like bees or lift like centipedes. These bots of the future could help conduct surveillance or even rescue operations in dangerous environments.

The study is published in the journal Science.

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