Publication | Frontiers in Robotics and AI 2021

Validating a Termite-Inspired Construction Coordination Mechanism Using an Autonomous Robot

A template-based feedback process like the one considered here could potentially provide a novel mechanism to help coordinate environmentally-responsive building in collective robots. It requires no direct communication between agents, nor do agents respond directly to perceived configurations of material depositions, as they do in many insect-inspired models (Theraulaz and Bonabeau, 1995; Werfel et al., 2014). Rather, it is the indirect effect of the depositions on another relevant cue—in this case, local increases in air humidity—that prompts the local response by the agent, creating an environmentally mediated method of construction for scenarios where direct communication between agents may be unreliable or difficult. Philosophically, this approach hearkens back to early robotic investigations in collective construction, which saw a volatile template or environment as a key feature of such algorithms (Melhuish et al., 2006).

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Validating a Termite-Inspired Construction Coordination Mechanism Using an Autonomous Robot

Nicole E. Carey, Paul Bardunias, Radhika Nagpal, Justin Werfel

Frontiers in Robotics and AI 2021

Many species of termites build large, structurally complex mounds, and the mechanisms behind this coordinated construction have been a longstanding topic of investigation. Recent work has suggested that humidity may play a key role in the mound expansion of savannah-dwelling Macrotermes species: termites preferentially deposit soil on the mound surface at the boundary of the high-humidity region characteristic of the mound interior, implying a coordination mechanism through environmental feedback where addition of wet soil influences the humidity profile and vice versa. Here we test this potential mechanism physically using a robotic system. Local humidity measurements provide a cue for material deposition. As the analogue of the termite’s deposition of wet soil and corresponding local increase in humidity, the robot drips water onto an absorbent substrate as it moves. Results show that the robot extends a semi-enclosed area outward when air is undisturbed, but closes it off when air is disturbed by an external fan, consistent with termite building activity in still vs. windy conditions. This result demonstrates an example of adaptive construction patterns arising from the proposed coordination mechanism, and supports the hypothesis that such a mechanism operates in termites.

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