TERMES, or small termite-inspired robots designed for construction, could build shelters for the first colonies on the Moon and Mars.
These tiny devices require no master plan, and do not require regular instructions from Earth.
Current models are the size of a small watermelon, and can construct bridges, towers, and more from foam blocks. When they require infrastructure, such as stairs or ramps to complete their work, they build them with no prior instructions to do so. They construct these tools in such a way they do not impede construction taking place on the main project.
Such robots may, one day, be able to perform construction tasks in areas where humans can not easily service. This could include inside nuclear reactors, deep under oceans, or on the surfaces of other worlds.
Robots inspired by termites could, one day, build homes on other worlds. Communications between the Earth and Mars can not happen in real time, due to the finite speed of radio waves. The autonomous decision-making capabilities of the robots will make decisions based on the needs of the project and environmental conditions. This self-directing capability is called stigmergy.
"Robots obtain information about where bricks have been attached only through direct inspection," researchers from the Harvard University wrote in their study, which has been published in the journal Science.
Similar strategies are employed by both termites and ants, who build construction projects thousands of times larger than themselves, without a pre-determined plan. Termites pick up pieces of mud, and excrete pheromones into the mixture.
These chemicals attract further termites, and construction follows chemicals laid by the queen. No one is exactly sure of the purpose behind termite mounds. Some believe regulate temperture, while new research suggests the main role of these structures is to regulate gases.
Many challenges of building a human habitation on Mars could be answered by this new technology. Unlike current missions, if one craft stops working, the project as a whole continues, as other robots take the place of the failed device. If environmental conditions suddenly changed, such as in the case of a wind storm, the robots could immediately change plans, taking (or building) a shelter, before the command could be given by controllers back on Earth.
"We want a human user to be able to give such a swarm a high-level description of what they want built, and have a guarantee that the system will build that thing, without the user having to get into the details of how it's done," Justin Werfel, project leader from the Wyss Institute, said.
There is still decades of research ahead for scientists before a version of TERMES is able to build a Mars colony.
Although we may not be able to live on another planet just yet, robots inspired by termites may be building homes on Mars, instead of tearing them down.