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By John Biggs
November 28, 2017
Construction involves a lot of very big things. Big machinery, big tools, big structures. But it’s tiny creatures that are providing inspiration for an emerging wave of building methods.
I’m talking about insects, many species of which are tremendously skilled builders with an innate gift for their trade. Ants and termites build structurally sound and dizzyingly complex structures from dirt, suitable for housing hundreds of thousands or millions of their ranks. Honeybees construct complex and symmetrical beehives and honeycombs from which they operate their honey factories and provide shelter for their queen. Even spiders are builders, creating geometrically perfect webs as a trap for prey.
Scientists have been looking to such insect behavior to model a new form of construction, done by swarms of semi-autonomous robots that can construct basic structures with minimal programming and human intervention. This could be especially useful on projects that are dangerous or otherwise inhospitable to human workers, like disaster zones or even outer space.
What makes insects such a perfect model for construction is their collective consciousness. There’s no foreman barking out orders during the construction of a beehive, the creatures simply know their own task, and the group can pivot to adjust to changing priorities as they arise. It’s a pretty amazing thing to see a group operating as a united force without any guidance.
Harvard’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group is drawing inspiration from these tiny builders, and has created small construction robots programmed to work together in a swarm. These three-motored, four-wheeled robots are relatively simple, containing a few infrared and ultrasound sensors to avoid impeding one another’s progress, but not much else. They’re preprogrammed with a design and essentially turned lose to bring it to fruition, with no human control.
Harvard’s videos accompanying their research show small groups of tiny robots in action building a variety of simple structures using foam blocks, like staircases and low walls. The hope is that one day this technology can be harnessed in disaster zones to stack protective sandbags, or in space for the construction of research facilities, even eventual colonies for humans.
The robots operate independently, following a basic blueprint inputted by a human. They do not “communicate”, only react to changes as the structure gets built. Each new block put in place can be sensed by members of the swarm, and they can alter their course and priorities based on what’s already been done, trying other courses of action until the programmed structure is complete.
Obviously, structures intended for human use require a greater degree of precision than a massive mound of dirt built by a colony of termites, which is where the preprogrammed blueprints come into play.
The University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design has been experimenting with slightly terrifying sounding “spiderbots” that can be programmed to construct webs made from carbon fiber. A pair of these bots starts by affixing anchor points to a wall and then connects pieces of carbon fiber to create custom-programmed “web” shapes. The university is working on increasing the number of robots that can work together at once, and training them to navigate more complex surfaces like curved walls and ceilings.
The mysteries of nature are always a step or two ahead of human ingenuity, so the concept of using mini-robots in numbers even approaching the populations of actual insect colonies is a long way off. But for now, it has been proven through research that a group of a dozen or so robots can indeed operate as a collective unconscious to build simple structures. I, for one, welcome our new insect-inspired construction overlords.
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