Watch This Little Termite Robot Build Itself Some Stairs

Swarm of small and simple robots can team up to build structures much larger than they are, like your next house

2 min read
Harvard's Termes robot
Image: Harvard

Swarms of robots might not always seem like the friendliest things to have in your life, but next time you need a tiny stairway, this hard-working little robot named Kali and a bunch of its friends are here to serve.

Kali is part of Harvard’s Termes project, which is developing a swarm construction system where lots of little robots team up to build structures that would be impossible for any one single little robot to put together. It’s called “Termes” after our noble and endlessly destructive pals the termites, who use teamwork to fabricate mounds of earth up to 30 feet high. Like termites, Termes robots are simple and autonomous, and are able to cooperatively move heaps of standard building blocks (specially designed to allow the robots to both lift and crawl around on them) to create just about anything, as long as you give them enough blocks and enough time.

For example, the demo below shows Kali using just a few simple sensors to autonomously construct a staircase to scale a wall of an unknown height, based on previous experience with such situations:

Nicely done. While this is just one robot, you can easily extrapolate to what might be possible with swarms of robots, and it’s not just bigger staircases. Get enough of these little guys together and they’ll build you your very own fort, as the simulation at the end of this next video shows:

The Termes Project comes from Harvard’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group, the same dudes responsible for the kill-o-botskilobots we met last week. They’ll be presenting this work at the 2011 Robotics: Science and Systems conference next week in LA, and you can read the full paper at their website.

[ Termes Project ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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