Robot builders ‘are inspired by termites’

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They are as industrious as Bob the Builder and possess the same social intelligence as a colony of termites.

Scientists have created a crew of self-organising robots that can construct towers, castles and pyramids without any supervision or detailed instructions, it has been revealed.

The Termes bots are simply given an overall concept of the finished job and left to get on with it, researchers said. All that guides them are signals from infrared and ultrasound sensors and simple “traffic” rules that determine whether to go or stop.

Yet they seem to know when to lift a building brick and where to attach it, how to avoid collisions, and even how to reach higher levels by constructing staircases.

Despite the fact that the robots are just over six inches long and the slightly larger building bricks made of foam, scientists are impressed by their creations. In future, similar autonomous machines could be used to build full scale structures for human use, possibly in dangerous settings where it might be difficult for humans to work. Examples include earthquake shelters, underwater habitats, or bases on Mars.

“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,” said Prof Radhika Nagpal, of Harvard University.