These Autonomous Bots Build Structures With a Hive Mind of Their Own

These tiny construction robots look like they're doing a well-choreographed dance, working together to build a structure. Who's driving? Nobody—these micro machines cooperate autonomously, using the same concept that guides termites and bees to build huge structures without a supervisor or blueprint. Look at them go!

These bots are part of a research project from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences studying autonomous machinery. In a brand new research paper published in Science, the Harvard team shows how a group of machines can build structures many times their own size simply by following a basic set of rules.

The process is modeled after stigmergy, where termites and other insects use environmental signals to guide construction of a large structure without outside guidance. Harvard University computer scientist Justin Werfel and his team first devised a computer program that analyzes a structure and determines a simple set of rules the robots must follow to build it.

The robots are programmed to make certain decisions based on what they sense in their surroundings, but they're not given explicit instructions on where to place bricks. Essentially, they bumble around until they sense the black-and-white grid of a brick, or a white starting marker on the ground, or a fellow robot. The system expands on previous research using a similar system with a single robot, in a technique that was first proposed in 1995.

The robots don't know how many bricks are in the structure, or how many other robots are working on the project—they simply waddle around until their batteries die or there are no more places to put bricks. And since the bots work in parallel, the process is completely scalable: adding or removing bots from the project doesn't affect the workflow of each individual bot.

Werfel and colleagues envision a builder bot system like this being used to lay sandbags in advance of a flood, or working in hazardous environments—perhaps even on other planets. Like a real-life Wall-E. [Science via PhysOrg]