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It’s a swarm… of robots?!


The rather cute TERMES robots doing their thing. Photo credit goes to Eliza Grinnell, Harvard SEAS

You’ve seen a swarm of bees, you’ve seen a swarm of ants. But now, a research group at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have introduced us to a new kind of swarm, a swarm of robots.

The idea stems from, of all things, termites.

Normally, when you have any sort of large scale building operation, like a home for example, you have someone in charge telling each individual what to do. There are specialized functions for each person, a electrician, a carpenter, etc and if one of them walks out on the project, the project is stalled until they are replaced.

Termites don’t have a leader telling them what to do; the decentralized approach still let’s them build and repair large complex structures. If a flood comes along and a large portion of the termites or the structure is destroyed, it doesn’t matter, they go on fixing it and continue to build.

This structure was built without any sort of direction, termites just take environmental cues and simple chemical cues to let them know what to do next.

This structure was built without any sort of direction, termites just take environmental cues and simple chemical cues to let them know what to do next.

This idea has huge application potential, the model can be used for laying down sandbags, containing a nuclear or biological disaster, or possibly something a little further from home, help colonizing other worlds.

So how does it work?

In a typical robotics model you would have one computer overseeing the task, giving instructions to each robot and directing everything that goes on as the job changes.

Not so for the TERMES robots, they take cues from the environment around them. They have simple sensors that let them know if they are going to run into another robot, to let them know how high up they are, and to let them know what at kind of angle they are positioned.

They have no knowledge of what they are building, or how far along the project has come. They simply follow a certain set of ‘build rules’ to insure that they don’t get backed into a corner that they cannot get out from, build off a ‘cliff’ so to speak, and traffic rules for when they come across one of their brother robots.

With this approach they can build stairs, buildings, just about anything; they will even keep going, regardless if one of the robots is removed, or the structure is disrupted. This amazing idea allows fewer lines of code and less processing power than traditional robot models, it also makes the TERMES  robots more resilient than a traditional robotics system, since the system is much less complex.

It is exciting to think about the possibilities that proof of concept systems like the TERMES robots offer.

Soon a swarm of robots might not be that out of place.

One response

  1. Neato!


    February 15, 2014 at 2:54 pm

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