Alum’s Robotics Research Appears in Science
Justin Werfel, PhD, TJ ’95, is part of a team of computer scientists and engineers at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering that created autonomous robots with potential future applications in hard-to-reach or dangerous areas. Dr. Werfel and his colleagues built and programmed termite-inspired robots to take cues from the state of their local environment. By demonstrating that robots can build complex, three-dimensional structures without the need for any central command or hierarchy, the TERMES system showed the promise of this form of scalable, distributed artificial intelligence. The results of the four-year project were published in the February 14 issue of the leading journal Science.
Instead of following a blueprint and foreman as construction workers do, termites rely on a concept known as stigmergy, whereby the individual termites adjust their activity based on what they observe in their immediate surroundings. According to the Abstract for the Science article, “A user specifies a desired structure, and the system automatically generates low-level rules for independent climbing robots that guarantee production of that structure. Robots use only local sensing and coordinate their activity via the shared environment. We demonstrate the approach via a physical realization with three autonomous climbing robots limited to onboard sensing.”
Working in and across many disciplines has been key to Werfel’s success with this and other projects, and it all started at TJ. “With its world-class teachers, tech labs, and other opportunities, TJ provides students with an incredible background that prepares them for any area of science and technology,” he said.
What can a TERMES robot do?
- Move forward, backward, and turn in place
- Climb up or down a step the height of one brick
- Pick up a brick, carry it, and deposit it directly in front of itself
- Detect other bricks and robots in immediate vicinity
- Keep track of its own location with respect to a “seed” brick
What instructions do the TERMES robots follow?
- Obey predetermined traffic rules
- Circle the growing structure to find the first, “seed” brick (for orientation)
- Climb onto the structure
- Obtain a brick
- Attach the brick at any vacant point that satisfies local geometric requirements
- Climb off the structure
Courtesy Harvard’s Wyss Institute and SEAS