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article imageTERMES robots build structures without human guidance

By Paul Wallis     Feb 15, 2014 in Technology
Harvard - Termites are among the oldest forms of life. Their structures are ultra-efficient, air conditioned, and extremely durable. New robots developed at Harvard have successfully mimicked termite behaviour, with minimal software and no human help at all.
New Scientist:
A shoe-sized robot, shaped like a VW Beetle and built by a 3D printer, scuttles in circles on a Harvard lab bench. Its hooked wheels, good for climbing and grasping, also let it trundle on the flat. As I watch, it scoops a styrofoam block on to its back and then scrabbles across a layer of already deposited blocks to flip the new one into place. An impressive feat – especially given that it does this without human control, using simple rules about its environment to build a whole structure.
The robot is making a tower – like a termite might.
"If you want to build underwater, if you want to build a Mars base, it's going to be very difficult, dangerous and expensive to send people," says Justin Werfel of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. "But if you could send a team of robots to go build the habitat as the first step – that's the really long-term vision."
It’s a very practical vision. The TERMES robots are working on relatively straightforward structures at the moment, but they’re already able to do field work, stacking bags of rice. The lab TERMES robots used a simple plan, sensors, and coordinates in combination with software to accurately construct their tower.
As you can see in the video, they aren’t put off by sabotage, either, if someone removes their blocks. They simply complete the structure again. As a low risk option for difficult construction, they’re an excellent idea in progress.
There appear to be limits, however, to the current generation of TERMES robots. Simply based construction isn’t the basis of these limits; it’s the ability to manage accidental or otherwise unforeseeable introduced elements into the process.
What if a log falls on to one of the structural elements? Will they build on the obstacle, not seeing the problem? Can they manage changing situations, like a structure which is faulty and putting other structural elements out of whack?
These are actually minor points. They’re fixable, but they also mean the TERMES robots will need to evolve a bit before they’re ready for real construction, particularly large scale construction, where errors and repeated mistakes can be amplified. At this stage, the idea is bigger than the problems. It’s a good idea. Let’s hope it works, because it may cut construction costs and improve the ability to build large structures successfully.
Who knows- One day humans may live in gigantic TERMES mounds. That'd be no minor achievement. Termite mounds are some of the most fantastic architecture in the world.
More about TERMES robots, Harvard university, Robotics, robots in construction, Justin Werfel
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