18/02/2014| Robotics

Building like termites: robots show collective intelligence

The building and teamwork skills of termites have been replicated in robots developed by scientists in the US.

The Harvard team have created teams of robots which are able to work together. Through using repetitive actions and taking cues from each other, the robots are able to sense their immediate area and build large, coherent structures. The researchers have deliberately sought to mimic the behaviour of termites, insects which by following simple rules are able to build towering mounds in nature.

This work is representative of a decentralised approach to robot programming, which has some major advantages over more sophisticated systems. Applications could include deployment in hazardous areas, natural disasters or in Space, where it would be too dangerous for people to work and the success or failure of a task would not be dependent on an individual robot.



The project sought to borrow the concept of "stigmergy" from the natural world, in which behaviour is co-ordinated from information left in the environment. Termites take material to a location, at which they attempt to deposit it. If the location is already filled, they are trained to add their cargo to the next available space. The researchers developed an algorithm which generates a series of low-level rules for the robots to follow.

"We're not going to Mars anytime soon, but a more medium-term application might be to use similar robots in flood zones to build levees out of sandbags," said lead author Dr Justin Werfel, who was summarising the team's research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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