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Termite-inspired robots build structures without central command

Simple guidelines keep machines hauling and placing bricks

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2:00pm, February 13, 2014

BUILDER BOT  This building robot uses a forklift-style arm to hoist foam bricks onto its back and three-pronged wheel-legs to trek around a construction site. An onboard computer “brain” helps the bot navigate and make building decisions independently.

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Human construction crews, meet RoboTermites. Like the mound-building insects, these squat little robots can erect complicated structures without an instruction manual.

Using just a few preprogrammed rules, some traffic laws and a stack of foam bricks, the bots get busy building towers, pyramids and fortresslike walls, Harvard computer scientist Justin Werfel and colleagues report in the Feb. 14 Science.

One day, such robotic builders might be able to take on risky human jobs, such as building sandbag levees during floods. And like a termite or ant colony that gets stepped on, Werfel says, “it doesn’t matter if some of the robots are lost — the rest will keep going.”

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