For many humans, accomplishing major tasks in teams can be a challenge. Termites, though, might be some of the most ruthlessly efficient team-builders on the planet.
Now, robots have learned their secrets.
"You have millions of insects a centimeter long building tremendous, magnificent mounds. The largest is 42 feet long," says Justin Werfel, a research scientist at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. "Millions of independent agents based on what they themselves know, not having instructions based on an individual coordinator, can build these amazing structures."
"We look at that and say fantastic—it can be done," he says.
Over the past several years, Werfel and his Harvard colleagues Kirstin Petersen and Radhika Nagpal have been building robots that can replicate termite thinking patterns in order to build massive structures without a central blueprint. In this week's issue of Science, they show us how they've succeeded in doing so: Each TERMES robot is programmed with a set of "traffic laws," Werfel explains, that tell the builder what to do based on its environment—cues from other robots, for example, or where certain blocks are placed.
"A termite will put down a piece of soil, and another termite will encounter that soil and help it decide whether to use more soil," Werfel says. "It's the same kind of idea that the robots use. They're using their environment to communicate indirectly."
Because of the termite mind-meld, Werfel his colleagues' robots could one day be used to build structures where humans would otherwise risk dirty, dull, or dangerous work—like Mars, for example, or a flood zone. The Harvard team has already begun working on how the robots might build levees out of sandbags.
But there are still lots of kinks to work out. Werfel acknowledges that his robots can correct small errors they encounter, but big ones—like a robot falling off scaffolding and getting stuck on its back—could completely derail a project.
"Making an actual field robot that could operate in field areas would be a bigger challenge," he says. So far, though, they've got three very cute demonstrators.
Watch videos of the termite-minded bots in the slide show above.