Rise of the Robot Termite Colony


Termites tend to be viewed as destroyers of housing rather than sculptors of worlds. Yet the compounds that termites sculpt from practically nothing within the confines of Africa are fantastically complicated—some structures stemming 40 feet tall. A few of the chambers that termites construct even contain primitive forms of air-conditioning. What makes the behavior of termites all the more stupendous is that they are, to be terse, dumb. Termites have no idea what they are doing. They are just doing their job. They don’t know and they don’t care. When understood in this light, it should therefore come as no surprise that researchers use the behavior of termites as a blueprint for construction robots.

Termites are not dictated by the commands of a queen termite. Rather, the colonies shaped by termites are the result of anatomical behavior responding to various stimuli. Likewise, the construction robots are not dictated by a central command station, nor do they directly communicate to each other. Rather, the robots build on top of the work of their predecessor robots by responding to their immediate environment. The robots are encoded with a simple set of instructions that allow them to thrive within an environment in the same way that termites have an engrained instinct to build colonies. No rhyme, no reason. The robots are just doing their job—just like a termite colony would.

The scientists program the robots with a set of instructions to build a specific structure, like a pyramid. The robots are about the size of a shoe and contain various hooks and wheels in order to navigate and lift available resources. The robot’s ability to sense and respond to their immediate environment is known as stigmergy. One robot will put down a block. Another robot will then come into contact with the block and lay down its own block on top of the former. With the flow of time, the robots gradually sculpt a tower.

Using lots and lots of cheap robots to craft a sculpture is more efficient than using a few, sophisticated robots where the malfunction of can send the whole project into the abyss. The task of sculpting a tower from blocks may seem to trivial to deem significant; however, it is all the more significant considering the behavior of the robots is neither controlled by humans nor intentional in the everyday sense of the term. Rather, the robots serve as an artificial illustration of how unintelligent creatures create objects that have the illusion of being intelligently designed. The only difference between the robots designed by scientists versus the creatures designed by nature is that the latter do not have an end goal in mind.

The construction robots are not without their practical application. Construction robots may be able to work in environments that are ominous to humans, such as under the water and on Mars. Of course, this is a goal long in the making; however, construction robots are the beginning steps with this goal in mind. Yet these steps are not small by any means given that some researchers in 1995 thought that designing construction robots might be an impossible task. Researchers are therefore thrilled to see that, with the rise of the robot termite colony, this feet was not outside the purview of science.

By Nathan Cranford


New Scientist
Washington Post
Science Magazine

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