Termite-like bots to construct buildings in future

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

termite mound
Termites can build this without a real system of organization.

When it comes to construction, termites don’t follow a blueprint or take direction from a coordinator; they build what, when, and however they feel like it. The resulting mounds may not be very pretty, but they were impressive enough for a group of scientists to model a robot after the little insects! The bots are designed to react to their environment, which could be used in the future for construction projects that are too dangerous for humans.

The machines, nicknamed “frog-bots” or “squirrel-bots”, are designed to manipulate bricks. While they may not be particularly organized, they were programmed to follow a few behavior rules when the building begins. After the first “seed” brick is laid, the robots are able to move forward, backward, as well as climb up and down the blocks, so they can pull themselves higher and construct tall structures.

The bots also come with basic sensors to help them navigate effectively; they can maintain their balance, “see” the bricks, and use sonar (sound) to determine distance. Inside of these surprisingly sophisticated termite-like machines is a pattern recognition system that can help them make sense of the angles and shapes in their surroundings.

Since the machines can only detect nearby robot buddies, they don’t know what far off workers are doing, or what they’re trying to build exactly. So, it’s no surprise that the results are spontaneous structures… you know, like termite mounds. While it might not seem like such disorganized building is all that practical, researchers are confident that these builder bots will come in handy during emergency situations. After all, if a flood strikes, all you need is a rapidly constructed mega mound to hold back the water. Researchers hope to advance the cute little robots enough to eventually be able to build a base on Mars!

Featured image courtesy of Eliza Grinnell/SEAS Communications. Image of termite mound courtesy of Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences/Radhika Nagpal.