Collective Construction

Termite mounds can be towering, complex structures on the scale of several meters,with complicated functional architectures that include features such as ventilation systems and humidity regulation. The architects are vast numbers of simple insects on the scale of millimeters, working with no centralized control or preplanning. Yet these animals achieve tremendous complexity, parallelism and robustness, from individuals that are small, simple, and expendable. How swarms of social insects build the structures they do is a fascinating topic not fully understood. Engineering offers a complementary problem: How could you program an artificial robotic swarm to build a particular structure?

Our group studies how this can be achieved. We combine ideas from swarm intelligence and programmable self-assembly, to create algorithms, theory, and robot designs. We have developed a family of decentralized algorithms by which simple robots -- without wireless communication or GPS/localization -- can cooperate to build a large classes of user-specified structures out of modular blocks. We are developing new robotic platforms, for example, climbing robots that can build block structures much larger than themselves, and material-depositing robots that can build in unstructured environments. Most recently, we are collaborating with biologists to study and model the mound-building termites in Namibia. You can see webpages on each of these subareas below.

Collective construction has many important potential civilian applications, from the construction of human habitats to containments or support structures in disaster areas. It also is a difficult challenge for robotics and poses many interesting challenges in mechanical design, manipulation, autonomy, and multi-robot coordination.

New! Termite-inspired Robots, Science, Feb 2014 (cover article)
(Press: Boston Globe, Gazette, National Geographic, BBC )

Youtube Channel: Collective Construction Research

The TERMES Robots
Multi-robot system of climbing robots that can build 3D structures much larger than themselves.

Amorphous Construction
Algorithms and robots for building with compliant materials in unstructured environments.

Namibian Termites
Understanding and modeling the behavioral program of mound-building termites.

Extended Stigmergy
Algorithm design for decentralized and implicit coordination in collective construction and self-assembly (older project).

Nils Napp, Radhika Nagpal, Justin Werfel, Kirstin Petersen