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Termites Teach Tomorrow’s Builders

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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Need a crew that will work independently, intuitively, quickly and steadily—even when the foreman’s not watching?

Turn to the termite, the unlikely inspiration for an autonomous robotic construction crew developed by Harvard University scientists and engineers.

The robotic system, called TERMES, demonstrates that simple, collective systems of robots can (like termites) build complex, 3D structures without the need for any central command or prescribed roles, according to the team from Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

The team recently published results of its four-year project in Science.

Foreman Free

The TERMES robots can construct towers, castles, and pyramids out of foam bricks, autonomously building themselves staircases to reach the higher levels and adding bricks wherever they are needed, according to an announcement on the research.

Harvard University

The video, which supplements the Science article, shows the robot crew in action.

With only four simple types of sensors and three actuators, the robots can:

  • Follow a set of predetermined traffic rules;
  • Orient themselves with respect to a “seed brick;”
  • Detect other bricks and robots in the immediate vicinity; and
  • Move forward, backward and turn in place.

In addition, operating without a central command eliminates a potentially vulnerable single failure point for the system, researchers say.

In the future, similar robots could lay sandbags in advance of a flood or perform simple construction tasks on Earth or even Mars, the team said.

Taking Cues from Termites

Many species of termites work cooperatively to build complex mounds and structures without supervision, whereas humans typically work in a hierarchical fashion to complete projects.

“The key inspiration we took from termites is the idea that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor,” principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS, said in a statement.

Radhika Nagpal
Harvard University

Termites teach "that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor”—a novel concept in construction, says Dr. Radhika Nagpal.

Also, the idea “that you can do it without everybody discussing explicitly what’s going on, but just by modifying the environment” was another inspiring factor, she said.

Nagpal is also a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute, where she co-leads the bioinspired robotics platform.

No Queen Required

Justin Werfel describes the difference in human versus termite construction crews this way.

“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,” said Werfel, a staff scientist in bioinspired robotics at the Wyss Institute and a former SEAS postdoctoral fellow.

"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, the insects rely on a concept known as stigmergy, a kind of implicit communication: They observe other termites’ changes to the environment and act accordingly, he said.

robots
Eliza Grinnell / SEAS Communications

Like termites, each robot executes its building process in parallel with others, but without knowing who else is working at the same time.

The term stigmergy (stimulating configuration + energy), coined in the 1950s, refers to the mechanisms that mediate animal-animal interactions. In an insect society, for example, individuals work as if they were alone while their collective activities appear to be coordinated, as one expert explains. Stigmergy suggests that the previous work directs the work and triggers new building actions.

That is what the team designed the TERMES robots to do.

Each robot executes its building process in parallel with others, but without knowing who else is working at the same time.

If one robot has a breakdown, or has to leave, it does not affect the others, the team said. This also means that the same instructions can be executed by five robots or 500.

The TERMES system is an important proof of concept for scalable, distributed artificial intelligence, according to the team.

Similar Research

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are also exploring robot technology for the construction jobsite.

The MIT scientists developed modular robots capable of climbing over and around each other, spinning, jumping and snapping together.

The simple M-Blocks, as they’re called, may one day be able to self-assemble structures, raise scaffolding for building projects, or temporarily repair buildings and bridges during emergencies.

   

Tagged categories: Biomimicry; Building materials; Construction; Engineers; Jobs; Research

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