Termite-inspired robots could be the future of construction, if the new models, called TERMES, show promise. Working models of construction robots are already in testing.
The unusual inspiration for these robotic construction workers was termites. Millions of these tiny creatures work together on construction projects many times their size. Mounds created by the tiny creatures can rise eight feet above the ground. The insects carry out these projects without any predetermined master plan, by using information about local conditions and by keeping a close watch on termites around them. Termites know what the item they are building needs to accomplish, and what to watch for during construction. All other details are determined as building continues.
"Humans build houses according to a blueprint, and the construction process is centrally guided by this plan. In contrast, social insects such as termites build in a decentralized, self-organized manner. Each individual works rather independently and follows a set of simple rules... interactions among the workers... and the environment ensure an organized process without a central blueprint," the authors wrote in the article accompanying their invention.
The researchers at Harvard University were determined to build a fleet of robots that would do the same thing.
The TERMES, each about nine inches high, build tiny structures like pyramids and bridges from foam blocks. When detectors on the robots sense a brick, they move it to the proper spot in construction.
When ramps or stairs are required, the robots build the infrastructure they need to complete the project. These are built in such a way that they do no impede progress toward the final goal.
Construction projects are completed without a plan for the final design. The structure and layout of the product are determined by the robots, working together. As the robots carry out tasks of construction, they fill whatever role is needed. When one robots stops operating, the system as a whole continues. Rules govern the way robots travel, and interact with the world in front of them.
"Traffic can only flow in one direction between any two adjacent sites, which keeps a flow of robots and material moving through the structure," lead author Justin Werfel, from the Wyss Institute, said in a statement.
In the future, similar devices could build the first colonies on the Moon or Mars. Before that, these termite-inspired robotic workers could repair damaged nuclear reactors, or other dangerous areas.
Termites have long been a pest for construction workers. They eat away wood, making structures weak and causing them to fall apart. Now, those same creatures may point the way toward the future of the construction industry.
Development of the robotic construction crew was detailed in the journal Science, published 13 February.