Termites may be among the most repellent and invasive insects on the planet, but they've also provided the inspiration for a set of swarm-based construction robots designed by a group of Harvard researchers. The TERMES robot project is based on the behavior of actual termites: while the insects may be known for infesting homes, they also are skilled builders, making impressive, elaborate, and huge structures many times their size with little to no centralized guidance.
The TERMES robots work under the same principle — they're designed to construct 3D structures much larger than themselves with little oversight. The robots can manipulate and build up structures using specific types of blocks, can maneuver around the structures it builds, and multiple robots can take part and build up a user-defined structure. "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," says principle researcher Radhika Nagpal. "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."
The project has been underway for several years now, but Nagpal and his team have just published their findings in the Science journal and presented them at the AAAS conference in Chicago. The team has also published a new video of the TERMES robots in action, which includes some time-lapse footage of several robots working together to build a structure.