TERMES robots
February 14, 2014

New Construction Robots Inspired By Building Habits Of Termites

[ Watch the Video: Termites Inspire Robots ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Inspired by the way termites are capable of building mounds that are hundreds of times their size without detailed plans, researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have developed robots capable of mimicking the behavior.

The TERMES system, as it is known, was developed by a team of computer scientists and engineers and essentially serves as an autonomous mechanical construction crew. Unlike human builders, the robots require no blueprints or detailed instructions, no supervisor, and no centralized communications director – similar to how termites take cues from one another and from their environment to place individual dirt clumps and complete a structure.

“Termites are what inspired this whole research topic for us,” explained lead investigator and Wyss Institute researcher Justin Werfel. “We learned the incredible things these tiny insects can build and said: Fantastic. Now how do we create and program robots that work in similar ways but build what humans want?”

The technique through which termites use the information around them is known as stigmergy, and Werfel and his colleagues adapted the approach to create algorithms which allowed the TERMES project robots to behave in a similar manner. Their results were presented this week during the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting, as well as in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Using sensors, the bots move along a grid, lift bricks and deposit them in new locations, the researchers said. They are capable of building towers, castles and pyramids out of foam bricks, and also demonstrated their ability to build staircases to reach higher levels and add bricks where needed. Ultimately, the developers believe that the robots could be used to build structures on Mars or defend against natural disasters.

“A long-term vision is for robot teams like this to build full-scale structures for human use, maybe with particular utility in settings where it's difficult or dangerous for humans to work (e.g., building shelters after an earthquake or habitats underwater or on other planets),” Werfel said. “While that's likely a long way out, a shorter-term application could be something like building levees out of sandbags for flood protection.”

Each robot follows a series of simple instructions to work independently, functioning together towards a common goal but without knowing what tasks any of the other machines are performing at the same time. If one robot breaks down, the others are unaffected, and the technology is scalable, meaning that the same instructions can be executed regardless of how many robots are working on a given structure.

According to Werfel, each of the machines is given just two basic types of instructions. “The rules that are the same for any structure the robots build, and the 'traffic laws' that correspond to the specific structure,” he said. “The [traffic laws] tell robots at any site which sites they're allowed to go to next: traffic can only flow in one direction between any two adjacent sites, which keeps a flow of robots and material moving through the structure.”

“We co-designed robots and bricks in an effort to make the system as minimalist and reliable as possible,” added co-author Kirstin Petersen, who spearheaded the design and construction of the machines. “Not only does this help to make the system more robust; it also greatly simplifies the amount of computing required of the onboard processor. The idea is not just to reduce the number of small-scale errors, but more so to detect and correct them before they propagate into errors that can be fatal to the entire system.”

Image 2 (below): Harvard graduate student Kirstin Petersen and staff scientist Justin Werfel admire a termite mound in Namibia. Credit: Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, Harvard SEAS