Washington: Inspired by the termites` resilience and collective intelligence, a 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 has created an autonomous robotic construction crew.
The system needs no supervisor, no eye in the sky, and no communication: just simple robots-any number of robots-that cooperate by modifying their environment.
Harvard`s TERMES system demonstrates that collective systems of robots can build complex, three-dimensional structures without the need for any central command or prescribed roles.
The results of the four-year project were presented this week at the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting.
The TERMES robots 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.
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," principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS, said.
Most human construction projects today are performed by trained workers in a hierarchical organization, explains lead author Justin Werfel, a staff scientist in bioinspired robotics at the Wyss Institute and a former SEAS postdoctoral fellow.
"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," he said.
"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," he added.
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 impressive results.
The research is published in the journal Science.