Computer scientists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Science have created a small army of self-controlled robots that follow the same principles as ants or termites to create impressive structures out of foam blocks. The TERMES robots can create towers, pyramids, and other structures out of miniature bricks without any sort of blueprint — even building themselves staircases to reach higher levels.
Each robot is programmed with a simple set of rules modeled after the process termites and other social insects use to build complex structures without outside guidance. The robots rely on environmental cues to decide where to place bricks, without any need to track the number of bricks in the structure or how many other robots are collaborating on the project. The TERMES robots can continue working until their batteries die or they’re done laying bricks.
In the future, similar machines could be used in construction projects in environments that are too dangerous for human workers (for instance, underwater or even in outer space). They could also help with disaster relief efforts by laying down sandbags in flood zones. Unfortunately, those applications are likely years away — for now, scientists still have much to learn simply from observing and refining small-scale versions in the lab.