The TERMES Project

Collective construction of 3D structures by termite-inspired climbing robots

Nature provides us with impressive examples of animal construction: many species of termites build complex mounds several orders of magnitude larger than themselves. Yet the individual architects and engineers are small, expendable, and seem to operate with with little to no centralized supervision. Social termites provide an inspiration for the design of a swarm construction system, where many autonomous robots cooperatively build large-scale structures. Human construction traditionally involves direct human operation of tools and equipment, careful preplanning, and little or no true automation. Bringing automation to construction has the potential to improve measures like its speed and efficiency, as well as enabling construction in settings where it is difficult or dangerous for humans to work, e.g., disaster areas or extraterrestrial environments.

Inspired by termites and their building activities, our goal in the TERMES project is to develop a swarm construction system in which robots cooperate to build 3D structures much larger than themselves. The current hardware system consists of simple but autonomous mobile robots and specialized passive blocks; the robot is able to manipulate blocks to build tall structures, as well as manuever over and around the structures it creates. The multi-robot control allows many simultaneously active robots to cooperate in a decentralized fashion to provably build a user-specified structure, working from a high-level description as input.


Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team,
Justin Werfel, Kirstin Petersen, Radhika Nagpal,
Science, vol 343, no 6172, 14 Feb 2014 (link)
(For free access without a subscription, follow the links here)

TERMES: An Autonomous Robotic System for Three-Dimensional Collective Construction,
Kirstin Petersen, Radhika Nagpal, Justin Werfel,
Robotics: Science and Systems Conference (RSS), 2011 (pdf)

Distributed Multi-Robot Algorithms for the TERMES 3D Collective Construction System,
Justin Werfel, Kirstin Petersen, Radhika Nagpal,
Workshop on Reconfigurable Modular Robotics,
at IEEE/RSJ Intl. Conf. on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), 2011 (pdf)


Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard.


The video below is the complete project overview accompanying the Science publication. You can see many videos of the TERMES robots and simulations on our SSR YouTube channel Collective Construction video playlist.

SSR YouTube Channel

Science Press Release
Wyss/Harvard Press Release
BBC News article
Boston Globe Article
Discover Magazine
National Geographic Video
NPR "All Things Considered"
This is Genius Video (ITN UK)
Reuters TV Interview

London Science Museum

Kirstin Petersen, demoing the robots at the Science/AAAS Press Event, Feb 2014

Science Cover (Feb 2014), Discover Magazine (April 2013)


The robots: Kali (blue), Isis (yellow), Nargun (green)

On Exhibit at the London Museum of Science!