Imagine tens or hundreds of small simple robots working together, for us, to build structures. We could use such robot teams, also called swarms, in places where it is hard for humans to work. For example, we could send them under water or to different planets.

Robot colony Because such places would be dangerous and unpredictable, it would be very risky to send one big robot to do all the work. If the robot broke, the whole mission would fail. Instead, we could use a lot of simple robots to work together. The work would continue without interruption if some of the robots broke down.

There are a lot of animals that do this kind of construction. Ants, termites, wasps, bees and other insects create large and complicated homes that are often 1000s of times larger than a single insect. Yet none of the tiny workers knows a blueprint or is aware of the whole structure. Instead, insects use simple rules that guide their behaviour based on the world around.

Termite moundFor example, if an ant finds a piece of material on the ground, it simply puts new material next to it. Over time, walls start growing and structures appears from what seems as random behaviour.

Termites are more complicated and use pheromone to guide their construction. Pheromones are chemicals that termites place into their building material and that other termites can smell. More material has more pheromone and attracts more construction. The termite queen also emits her own pheromone that guides the workers to construct a chamber around her.

Robotic Builders
Robots at workIf it is possible in nature, why not with robots? Similarly to insects, our robots would only have simple sensors and actuators that would let them interact with a small portion of the world around. We could design rules that would be simple but produce the structures we want when combined together. We would then send a team of robots to do their work and enjoy the results later.

Finding out how such rules should look like is a popular question in swarm robotics, a research field in which scientists often take inspiration from social insects to design behaviour of simple robots that cooperate on tasks. Being able to control a robotic swarm requires to think 'from the bottom up'. We need to design behaviour of individuals so that their interactions with each other and with the world around lead to results far more complicated than what a single robot can do. It requires patience, imagination and a new, decentralised, perspective on how work can be done. It requires... The Hive Mind

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