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.