Termite inspired robots could help build flood defences

Scientists have developed ‘self-organizing’ robots that can build complex, three-dimensional structures and could in the future be put to work on tasks such as laying sandbags in advance of a flood.

The robots can build themselves staircases to reach the next construction point. Photograph: Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.

The team of computer scientists and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University were inspired by the way termites work together to create colonies. The autonomous robots have been designed to cooperate and modify their environment without the need for any central command or prescribed roles.

Through the project, called TERMES, robots were developed that can build towers, castles, and pyramids out of foam bricks, autonomously building themselves staircases to reach the higher levels and adding bricks wherever they are needed. The scientist claim that in the future, similar robots could lay sandbags in advance of a flood, or perform simple construction tasks on Mars.

“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,” says principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS. She is also a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute, where she co-leads the Bioinspired Robotics platform.

Lead author Justin Werfel, a staff scientist in bioinspired robotics at the Wyss Institute and a former SEAS postdoctoral fellow explains: “Normally, at the beginning, you have a blueprint and a detailed plan of how to execute it, and the foreman goes out and directs his crew, supervising them as they do it. 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."

Instead, termites rely on a concept known as stigmergy, a kind of implicit communication: they observe each others’ changes to the environment and act accordingly. That is what Nagpal’s team has designed the robots to do with each robot executing its building process in parallel with others, but without knowing who else is working at the same time. If one robot breaks, or has to leave, it does not affect the others. This also means that the same instructions can be executed by five robots or five hundred.

The TERMES system is seen as important proof of concept for scalable, distributed artificial intelligence.

The results of the four-year project were presented at the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting and published in the February 14 issue of Science.

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