Monday, March 31, 2014

Quick, Henry, the Flit

Yeah, just what we need, "termite-inspired robots." As if termites were not bad enough.

You have often read here about my battle against the termites on our tropical island. Without constant vigilance they would reduce my house to dust. Voracious. Driven.

They don't only devour, of course. They also build. Here is a typical nest, not far from the house. Quite a structure for insects so tiny you can hardly see them. Neighbors came back from a long absence to find one of these nests inside their house!

Science asks: "How can such tiny insects less than 1 cm in size and equipped only with a simple brain, construct air-conditioned buildings up to 500 times their size?" They don't use a master plan, as humans do. Each insect follows a simple set of local rules governing the interactions among the workers and the interaction of each worker with the environment. This is what the Harvard University researchers reporting in Science sought to mimic.

The cute little robots fashioned by the researchers are about the size of a few decks of cards. They can move forward or in reverse, turn in place, climb a step, pick up and carry a standardized brick that attaches to other bricks magnetically. They can build staircases of bricks to reach higher levels. They can sense and respond only to other robots and bricks in their immediate vicinity. Programmed with the appropriate on-board algorithms, they can build elaborate user-defined structures.

It's fun to watch the movies of actual and simulated robots available on the Science website.

Cute, but where's it going? Swarming gangs of little electro-mechanical robots building skyscrapers? Or how about a troop of termite-microrobots patrolling my house, looking out for the real thing, exterminating, repairing. Now that would be worth wishing for.