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Harvard Researchers Have Turned Termites Into Robot Builders

Here in North America, termites are considered dangerous pests. An infestation can horrendously undermine the stability of a structure. Left unchecked, they can bring an entire home crashing down.

The termites of Africa and Australia are a little different. These insects are responsible for building some of the most fascinating structures ever seen in the animal kingdom, sprawling cities of packed dirt which can reach up to thirty feet high. These intricate, climate controlled structures allow the termites to live aboveground, cultivating their fungal gardens and building their mound higher and higher.

It's thus no great surprise that, when a team of researchers at Harvard set out to build a new breed of construction bot, they drew inspiration from the termites swarm construction method. The robots - known as TERMES - are the first step in a project that the researchers hope will allow for the autonomous construction of complex structures.

Because of their design philosophy, the TERMES robots are incredibly simple. Each unit houses ten sensors and three actuators so that it can detect its position relative to the blocks used as building materials. These blocks are effectively all the robots are aware of; they've no concept of their surroundings outside their immediate environment, nor do they have any concept of the progression of the structure as a whole or the actions of their fellows. They simply take what is in front of them and progress until it reaches its final state, using support shelves and motorized arm/gripped arrays to manipulate their surroundings. 

The identical design of the robots also allows a single worker to build an entire structure on its own, if necessary. Each TERMES unit is able to maneuver both on the structure it's creating and in unstructured environments. Unfortunately, their limbs - pegged wheels - don't yet have the ability to operate around obstacles.  Presumably, developing that functionality will be the next order of business for researchers. 

An individual TERMES bot measures in at around 6.8 inches long with its gripping claw raised, 4.3 inches wide and 4 inches high. It's constructed out of a combination of 3D printed components and off-the-shelf items, which together weigh in around 810 grams. Propelled by twin micro metal gear motors, each robot is fitted with a mercury tilt switch to allow it to retain some sense of balance and position even if it falls.  

The TERMES project has a little ways to go yet before it's anything resembling practical, but it nevertheless represents an incredible first step towards a fully automated workforce. Imagine it: buildings are constructed with almost no human oversight by a legion of mechanical construction bots that work constantly and at peak efficiency. Construction costs would potentially drop through the floor - as would build times. The expendable nature of each robot further means that their work continues uninterrupted regardless of how many might succumb to a dangerous construction site.

It's too early yet to say whether or not the TERMES project will bear fruit, but it's certainly a very promising concept - and one which could, in short order, lead to the next step in the robot revolution.