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Termite-inspired robots could one day build structures on Mars

Imagine building structures on Mars with tiny, termite-inspired robots. That’s exactly what researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University anticipate could happen in the near future. Not only could their TERMES system build structures on the Red Planet, but their robotic construction crew works without the help of an “eye in the sky” or prescribed roles.

According to Harvard University, the robots can build towers, castles and pyramids out of foam bricks.

“The key inspiration we took from termites is the idea that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor, and secondly that you can do it without everybody discussing explicitly what’s going on, but just by modifying the environment,” says principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS.

While most human construction project are done by workers in a hierarchical organization (with the foreman at the top), lead author Justin Werfel, a staff scientists at the Wyss Institute, says that examining termite colonies inspired the researchers to design the robots around a concept known as stigmergy or tacit communication. Termites rely on stigmergy: they observe each others’ changes to the environment and act accordingly.

The TERMES system is scalable, according to the researchers. Each robot works in parallel with other, but without being aware of who else is working simultaneously. As a result, the same project can be built by six robots or 6,000 robots.

“When many agents get together—whether they’re termites, bees, or robots—often some interesting, higher-level behavior emerges that you wouldn’t predict from looking at the components by themselves,” notes Werfel. “Broadly speaking, we’re interested in connecting what happens at the low level, with individual agent rules, to these emergent outcomes.”