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

Nic Carey, Paul Bardunias, Radhika Nagpal, Justin Werfel​

Frontiers in Robotics and AI​
2021

Four images of termite construction, including real images and drawings

Abstract

Many species of termites build large, structurally complex mounds, and the mechanisms behind this coordinated construction have been a long-standing 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.​

Supplementary Material

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