Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team

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Science  14 Feb 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6172, pp. 754-758
DOI: 10.1126/science.1245842

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Complex systems are characterized by many independent components whose low-level actions produce collective high-level results. Predicting high-level results given low-level rules is a key open challenge; the inverse problem, finding low-level rules that give specific outcomes, is in general still less understood. We present a multi-agent construction system inspired by mound-building termites, solving such an inverse problem. A user specifies a desired structure, and the system automatically generates low-level rules for independent climbing robots that guarantee production of that structure. Robots use only local sensing and coordinate their activity via the shared environment. We demonstrate the approach via a physical realization with three autonomous climbing robots limited to onboard sensing. This work advances the aim of engineering complex systems that achieve specific human-designed goals.

Robot Rules

In the case of mound-building termites, colonies comprising thousands of independently behaving insects build intricate structures, orders of magnitude larger than themselves, using indirect communication methods. In this process, known as stigmergy, local cues in the structure itself help to direct the workers. Werfel et al. (p. 754; see the Perspective by Korb) wanted to construct complex predetermined structures using autonomous robots. A successful system was designed so that for a given final structure, the robots followed basic rules or “structpaths” in order to complete the task.

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