Feb 14, 2014 03:50 AM EST
Termites are usually a builder's nightmare as they eat up wooden structures, destroying them. But who thought a swarm of termites could actually aid construction?
A team of researchers from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has built a robotic construction crew that draws inspiration from termite's swarm intelligence.
"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, chief investigator of the study, said in an official statement.
Termites usually rely on a concept called 'Stigmergy', where every insect observes the changes made to the environment and acts accordingly. The scientists decided to incorporate the concept into the robots to create TERMES- the autonomous construction crew, which needs no supervision.
Operating independently, the robotic termites can build complex foam 3-D structures like staircases, castles and multi level buildings.
"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," explained Justin Werfel, lead author of the study.
The robots coordinate by assessing the work that has already been completed. The Washington Post explains the process in a simple way.
After a blueprint of a building is fed to the robo-crew, one robot places a block in an area. The other senses the location of the block and places another next to the block already placed. This process continues until the building is completed. The robots are programmed in such a way that they can even recover from unexpected changes during construction.
The robots only perceive their immediate environment and do not have any information about the overall structure, reports BBC.
Check out a video to see how TERMES works:
The scientists believe that the robo-crew can be used in places where access is difficult for humans like underwater or even on planets like Mars.
Experts have lauded the study.
"The idea has been around for a while, that you can have robots cooperate to construct something larger than themselves. But no one has really been able to get that to work," said Hod Lipson, associate professor of robotics at Cornell University, to NPR.org.
"The authors have a proof of concept of a system that exhibits collective behavior, without a leader, using only local information. This can have far reaching consequences as we try to create swarms of robots for search and rescue, and for first response," roboticist Vijay Kumar of the University of Pennsylvania said to the Washington Post in an e-mail.