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How Termites are Influencing Robotics and Engineering

By Leslie Morrison, CTD Summer Leapfrog Coordinator

Why are scientists intrigued by the complexity of termite colonies? Over the course of one year, a society of a million termites can move 550 pounds of soil and several tons of water, all for the maintenance of one skyscraper-like mound that can soar as high as thirty feet. Termites have an amazing power when they work together, and this collective behavior is inspiring innovations in robotics and engineering alike.

Bioinspired Robotics and Biomimicry: The TERMES Project at Harvard University is developing robots that can build structures without instructions. The robots act independently but also collectively—they can move bricks, build a simple staircase, and overcome simple obstacles, all with the use of sensors. This project is influenced by the collective cognition and collective behaviors of termites. Scientists hope that in the future, robots of this type may be able to build structures on Mars or navigate disaster sites without putting humans in harm’s way.

 

Construction of Buildings: Scientists believe that termites’ massive mounds are constructed to regulate the environment in their nests, which are located well below the mound itself. In this way, termites build an environment that accommodates the humidity levels, carbon dioxide levels, and temperatures that they need to live. The mound serves as a kind of large lung, which regulates gas exchange. British engineers are investigating these termite-built structures to help them develop energy-efficient homes. These homes would have porous walls to leverage passive wind energy and regulate circulation.

 

If you know a child who loves bugs, encourage them! This budding interest may grow into a lifelong love of entomology, the scientific study of insects. Or perhaps their fascination could develop into a career in one of the cutting-edge fields being influenced in a big way by these tiny members of our animal kingdom.

 

This summer, CTD students will explore the complexity and purpose of termite colonies in Tower Builders: Termites & More, for grades 2-3>>

 

 

Resources

 

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

http://wyss.harvard.edu

 

Programmable Robot Swarms

http://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/swarm-robotics-kilobots/

 

“Robotic Construction Crew Needs No Foreman”

http://wyss.harvard.edu/robotic-construction-crew-needs-no-foreman/

 

“Inspired by Swarming Termites, Robots Can Build Without Supervision”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140213-robots-building-blocks-termites-swarm-science-technology/

 

Why Termites Build Such Enormous Skyscrapers

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151210-why-termites-build-such-enormous-skyscrapers

 

Collective Mind in the Mound: How do Termites Build their Huge Structures?

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140731-termites-mounds-insects-entomology-science/

 

Human Towers of Catalonia

http://thekidshouldseethis.com/post/castellers-behold-the-human-towers-of-catalonia

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