Collective Construction by Termite-Inspired Robots
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CitationPetersen, Kirstin Hagelskjaer. 2014. Collective Construction by Termite-Inspired Robots. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractConstruction usually involves careful preplanning and direct human operation of tools and material. Bringing automation to construction has the potential to improve its speed and efficiency, and to enable building in settings where it is difficult or dangerous for humans to work, e.g., in extraterrestrial environments or disaster areas. Nature provides us with impressive examples of animal construction: in particular, many species of termites build complex mounds several orders of magnitude larger than themselves. Inspired by termites and their building activities, our goal is to develop systems in which large numbers of robots collectively construct human-scale structures autonomously.
In this thesis I present TERMES, a system comprised of (1) A high-level control algorithm for decentralized construction of 3D user-specified structures using stigmergy, exploiting implicit rather than explicit communication; and (2) A complete physical implementation where three robots reliably assemble such structures using only local sensing, limited locomotion, and simple control, exploiting embodied rather than explicit intelligence. A major contribution of this work is the translation from abstract models to a real robotic system. I achieved this through careful co-design of algorithms and physical systems and of robots and building material, allowing passive mechanical features to minimize control complexity. To attain reliable performance without relying on costly high-precision sensors and actuators, I put an emphasis on error-tolerant control, making robots able to autonomously detect and recover from small errors. This work advances the aim of engineering collectives of robots that achieve human-specified goals, using biologically-inspired principles for robustness and scalability.
While our work is inspired by models of termite construction from the 1970s and 1980s, much is still unknown about how individual termites coordinate and respond to different environmental factors. To address this issue I developed methods and tools to enable high-resolution quantitative data collection on the behavior of individual termites engaged in collective construction in confined experimental arenas. This work advances our ability to study the termites which will hopefully lead to new insights on the design of robust autonomous systems for collective construction.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:13068244
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