Construction is a trillion-dollar industry, from which automation remains almost completely absent. Robots could transform the way we build, as well as enable construction in settings where human presence is dangerous or problematic, as in disaster areas or extraterrestrial environments.
Our typical approach to construction, as well as to robotics, is heavily centralized, hierarchical, and preplanned. In contrast, animals that build in nature do so with a decentralized, reactive approach, creating large-scale and complex structures through the independent actions of dozens to millions of builders, all responding to the situations they encounter. Such an approach can have advantages such as massive parallelism, robustness to loss of agents and other unpredictable events, and scalability. At the same time, it poses considerable problems of coordination and other challenges. How can we ensure that an unknown number of builders, each independently controlled and limited to local information, reliably produce a particular collective result, without creating nonlocal conflicts?
I’ll describe the design, creation, and programming of a system of multiple climbing robots that collectively build user-specified structures. The approach is inspired by termites: The robots are independently controlled, limited to local information they can perceive with their onboard sensors, and flexibly build large-scale (relative to their own size) structures, coordinating their activity by modifying and responding to their shared environment. A user provides a blueprint of a desired final structure, and the robots follow simple, local rules that guarantee the correct completion of that structure.
I’ll also describe ongoing work toward a related system that automates not only the construction process but also the structure’s design: A user will specify a set of desired functional requirements, and robots will build a structure that meets those requirements, responding to physical forces on the structure as it’s built and adapting to an unpredictable, potentially dynamic environment.
Justin Werfel is a senior research scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. His research includes work on swarm robotics, evolutionary theory, DNA self-assembly, social insect behavior, and other topics in complex systems and self-organization. His work on termite-inspired construction robots was featured on the cover of Science and highlighted among Science’s “top 10 scientific achievements of 2014.”
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