Think about all the planning that goes into building a house: designing blueprints, developing a construction strategy and coordinating the people who are building it. All of that may someday change, thanks to the lowly termite. Termite colonies build complex nests with intricate systems of tunnels and chambers. How do these simple organisms build something so sophisticated? The answer is stigmergy.
What is Stigmergy?
Stigmergy is the method in which social organisms communicate indirectly by sensing and shaping what’s around them without following a plan. Termites are a great example of how stigmergy works. These very simple insects take cues from each other and their environment to figure out where they should place the next piece of soil in the tunnel-building process. Scientists have used stigmergy to develop a mathematical formula that will allow robots to build structures without needing blueprints.
A computer scientist and robotics engineer have teamed together with the help of a termite expert to create a new kind of robot. These 8-inch “swarm robots” can build anything without having a strategy or using centralized communication. You simply input pictures of the final product into the robots, provide building materials and then let these little machines do their thing. If one robot breaks down, it doesn’t matter because they don’t rely on each other to achieve their goal. Swarm robots have been programmed with sensors that allow them to identify building material and avoid bumping into one another. They have also been programmed with certain rules that will prevent them from building an unstable structure.
The Benefits of Swarm Robots
Swarm robots have been developed to help with construction in places that are dangerous for people like underwater or on other planets. They can also help with grueling tasks, like stacking sandbags during flooding .The benefits of swarm robots could be farther reaching than construction projects, they could one day be an invaluable part of emergency response and rescue efforts.
There’s no doubt that we now have more respect for termites and their use of stigmergy, but that doesn’t mean we like them chewing on our houses! With termite season fast approaching, keep your eye out for more termite blog posts as well as facts and tips about these insects on Facebook and Twitter.