What Termites Teach Us About Robot Cooperation

What Termites Teach Us About Robot Cooperation

What Termites Teach Us About Robot Cooperation

At a glance, a single worker of the genus Macrotermes is not a very complex creature—less than half an inch long, eyeless, wingless, with an abdomen so transparent you can spot the dead grass it ate for lunch. Put it in a group, though, and it may pile up pinhead-sized balls of mud, one after the other, until a complex mound takes shape. By the time that mound is 17 feet tall, it will be equivalent in scale to the Burj Khalifa. In its basement sits a symbiotic fungus, which digests grass for the nest and requires continuous care from the workers.

Although termites build without the benefit of architects or engineers, their mounds are ingeniously constructed, using cues known only to the bugs. In fields in Namibia, the structures angle gently north, tracking the sun at this latitude. They are not so much invertebrate apartment buildings as solar diagrams, written in dirt, with termites as the calculating agents.

Since 2011, a team of roboticists from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, led by Radhika Nagpal, has been making regular visits to Namibia in hopes of uncovering how such local signals as humidity, pheromones, and termite behavior contribute to the global reality of the mounds. In 2012, I watched them video the insects in elaborate little sets constructed in soil, plaster, and plexiglass. The team’s goal, essentially, was to find the machine in the bug. Nagpal and her colleagues assumed that the termites could be modeled as stochastic automata—memoryless mini robots whose actions were driven by probability rather than intent. Extracting data on the animals’ behavior, they believed, would help them design algorithms for the autonomous construction robots they planned to develop back home.

Workers laboring inside a nest.

After two weeks of tests, the researchers had failed to gather the information they were looking for. The bugs were ciphers: Sometimes they did nothing under the video cameras; sometimes they formed a whirling ball of termites; sometimes—but often when the cameras were off—they built furiously. Kirstin Petersen, a PhD candidate at the time, set about determining why. At the lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she devised a tracker that could follow and analyze individuals in a group—something off-the-shelf trackers could not do. (Scientists often paint ants in order to track them, but termites groom the paint off.)

Petersen was surprised to observe that the termites were not like robots at all. They were individuals, each one a quirky character. Some were leaders who appeared to “trigger” others to make little piles of dirt balls, a few were workaholics, and many were the insect version of Bill Murray characters—slackers, really—who did little more than take an occasional trot around the petri dish.

Looking back, Petersen said, the team’s initial approach was “laughable.” “When I build two robots, I know the two are not the same,” she told me. “Even if termites were perfect robots, there would be fluctuations.” Petersen, who is now at Cornell’s Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab, said that her termite insights made her interested in creating crowds of social robots, in which a relatively dumb horde follows a few perceptually gifted leaders.

The sociality of robots could upend our expectations of machines in the same way that the very idea of slacker termites has boggled our simplistic ideas about nature. We imagine that the future of autonomous swarms is machinelike perfection and greater control, but moments of unpredictable, Three Stooges–like chaos are also likely to emerge. In the mess, there is meaning that termites—but not yet humans—can comprehend.

This article appears in the August issue. Subscribe now.

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The Power of Swarms Can Help Us Predict the Future

Swarms of bats, birds and locusts may strike fear in the heart of humans, but as scientists are discovering, we all might be following the same patterns of behavior.


What termites can teach architects

By Carolyn Fry

Termite mounds are proving to be an innovative source of inspiration to architects – could we benefit from using biomimicry to solve complex human challenges?

If there’s one thing Mother Nature’s good at, it’s being efficient. Take a termite mound, for example.

These conical mud towers that punctuate the parched red landscapes of the tropics are built by termites harvesting mud from below the ground, mixing it with saliva and extruding it. Each mound is the result of hundreds of insects making individual decisions on when and where to place these gobbets of ‘cement’, guided by climatic, environmental and social conditions. The constant war fought between competing termites for precious mud resources and desirable locations, and the repeated recycling of materials by weathering, results in an efficient and sustainable building. This finished termite ‘tower block’ is far larger a construction than an individual insect could build, and can house a vast colony of termites.

If we are to truly take a leaf out of Mother Nature’s book, we must mimic nature’s processes.

Inspired by insects

When it comes to the process of building homes for people, we have had it easy by comparison. With a bountiful supply of natural resources at our fingertips and the intelligence to use them innovatively, we have not been driven by such a need for efficiency in construction, where all a building’s uses (from heating to circulating air and harvesting energy from nature) are integrated seamlessly into the construction process from the outset. However, with the Earth’s population soon to exceed 10 billion, and the competition for dwindling natural resources becoming fiercer, we need to adopt an approach that is closer to that of termites. So how do we do that, without physically fighting our neighbours to build houses, and living in vast communities?

The term ‘biomimicry’ is given to human efforts to design and produce structures and systems modelled on nature. Architects and engineers have long sought to emulate nature when designing buildings but they have tended to focus on what a construction will look like and what it will be used for. Traditionally, this is how we have viewed nature, too. However, if we are to be motivated by efficiency when designing things, this is the wrong approach, says Rupert Soar, reader in sustainable technologies at Nottingham Trent University. He believes that if we are to truly take a leaf out of Mother Nature’s book, we must do so by mimicking nature’s processes; after all, it is the process by which termites build their mounds that results in the integrated nature of their form and function. We may be able to achieve this, thanks to a union of science, computing and engineering.

’In order to write computer programmes, you have to describe or code a process by which something happens so, as computing technology has advanced, we have begun producing people who understand processes,’ explains Soar. ’And, armed with new laboratory technologies, biologists have begun looking beyond an organism’s shapes and what it does, and have got down to the nitty-gritty of examining how it does it. They are examining how organisms build structures to regulate and control the world around them. So, thanks to technological advances, humanity is now examining and understanding the processes by which nature works in a way we’ve never been able to do before.’

Intelligent creations

A termite mound creates the conditions that a colony of millions of termites needs to thrive. It must protect the termites from the harsh environment, safeguard them against attacks by ants, and supply fresh air deep underground. Some mounds capture the heat of the sun during the day and the cooling effects of the night, to drive a complex circulation of air that flips direction twice a day, to provide fresh air to the colony. One human building inspired by these principles is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. It has a porous surface that helps to store and release heat during the day-to-night cycle, much like a termite mound. This has helped to slash the energy costs of running the building. However, the widespread adoption of natural processes within construction has not generally been possible because of financial constraints.

One further technological advance may be about to change that: the ability to undertake 3D printing on a large scale at a relatively low cost. The construction company Laing O’Rourke has just launched what it claims is the world’s biggest 3D printer assembly, which will make wax moulds for concrete construction components. Whereas engineers have historically mostly been limited to building in straight lines, this advance will facilitate the use of curves and will enable designers to incorporate aesthetic, structural, acoustic and thermal elements into one design, an approach more in tune with natural processes.

This advance has the potential to take biomimicry in a new direction. Architects will be able to physically replicate the processes by which organisms build habitats or biological membranes, to control the flow of heat, moisture or any other component of ‘comfort’. ’Understanding the processes of construction in nature demands knowing how organisms add and subtract material simultaneously, as they fight over limited resources, which produces efficiency,’ says Soar. ‘We’re now working on the next generation of 3D printers, which will sense the environment they’re printing into; some heads will add material while others subtract it simultaneously. It will take years to reach that point but that’s where we’re headed. It’s about recreating, within the digital sphere, the process of the bloody and fierce negotiation by which nature operates.’


What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings

Sections SEARCH Skip to content Skip to site index Science Subscribe Log In Log In Today’s Paper Science | What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings Advertisement Supported by Trilobites “We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” a researcher said. ByJoAnna Klein March 26, 2019 In the capital of Zimbabwe, a building called Eastgate Centre holds nearly 350,000 square-feet of office space and shops. It uses 90 percent less energy than a similar sized building next door. What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites. In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the building’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds built by fungus-farming termites he saw on a nature show. The insects created their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside. As architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world, a study of another type of termite mound suggests that Mr. Pearce won’t be the last human to take design tips from these cockroach cousins. “We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” said Kamaljit Singh, an engineer at Imperial College London and an author on the study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances. “We can learn from small animals.” [ Like the Science Times page on Facebook. | Sign up for the Science Times newsletter. ] Dr. Singh and his colleagues used high-resolution scanning technology and computer and physical simulations… [Read full story]


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Termites can teach us about cooling

Prelims- Science & Technology

1. Termites create their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside.

2. Architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world.

3. The study of termites and the structure of the mounds could give us an answer.

Learning from insects

1. The study of microscopic structure of the external walls of African termite nests found a network of tiny, interconnected pores.

2. These pores regulate ventilation, humidity and possibly temperature, within the mound and nest.

3. These pores help manage gas flow and drainage.

4. The physics of gas exchange in the lung is very much the same way as the termite mound is organized.

5. These natural structures may offer inspiration for engineers and builders on the importance of structure.


What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings – News

Within the capital of Zimbabwe, a constructing known as Eastgate Centre holds almost 350,000 square-feet of workplace area and retailers. It makes use of 90 p.c much less vitality than the same sized constructing subsequent door.

What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites.

Within the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the constructing’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds constructed by fungus-farming termites he noticed on a nature present. The bugs created their very own air-con methods that circulated scorching and funky air between the mound and the surface.

As architects and builders search new and improved methods to chill buildings with out utilizing extra vitality in a warming world, a examine of one other sort of termite mound means that Mr. Pearce received’t be the final human to take design ideas from these cockroach cousins.

“We predict people are the very best designers, however this isn’t actually true,” stated Kamaljit Singh, an engineer at Imperial Faculty London and an creator on the examine, printed Friday within the journal Science Advances. “We are able to be taught from small animals.”

Dr. Singh and his colleagues used high-resolution scanning expertise and laptop and bodily simulations to look at the microscopic construction of the exterior partitions of African termite nests. In slabs that look strong to the bare eye, the workforce discovered a community of tiny, interconnected pores. Via rules of primary physics, these pores regulate air flow, humidity and presumably temperature, inside the mound and nest. These pure buildings might supply inspiration for engineers and builders, emphasizing how consolation might be achieved by construction alone.

There are round 2,600 species of termites, and solely about two dozen infest and destroy buildings. Many extra are extremely social builders aiming to guard their queens and make sure the survival of their colonies.

Carbon dioxide should exit in order that they don’t suffocate of their underground nests, and oxygen should enter. The mounds termites construct above nests are the lungs that make this respiration attainable.

However there are several types of mounds. Termites that farm fungus construct buildings with chimneys and openings that work like home windows. The buildings of non-farming termites, like those the researchers collected in Senegal and Guinea, don’t have any obvious openings. To the bare eye, “every part appears to be like blocked,” stated Dr. Singh.

However the pores are there, as a result of the mounds are made out of stacking pellets of sand blended with spit and soil. Small areas type inside these pellets and bigger areas, between them. Earlier work with CT scans confirmed the small pores within the outer partitions of those nests.

However with micro-CT scanners, the workforce noticed deeper inside, with larger decision and revealed the connections between smaller pores and biggers ones. That this microstructure was virtually the identical no matter whether or not it was constructed of sand in dry Senegal or clay in moist Guinea instructed construction, not materials, is likely to be the important thing to air flow.

When the workforce mimicked sturdy winds in simulations, buildings with out the bigger pores couldn’t breathe as effectively and accrued extra carbon dioxide. The researchers additionally drenched mound partitions in water to imitate heavy rain. The massive-pore-small-pore construction dried out sooner.

“For those who have a look at the physics of fuel trade within the lung, it’s very a lot the identical approach because the termite mound is organized,” stated Dr. Turner.

Stirring from wind, very like a muscle contraction, permits gases to combine and attain vital locations like a termite nest or human blood. “If you consider what the mound is,” he stated, “it’s actually an organ in physiology that’s constructed out of filth by a bunch of little termites.”

The workforce additionally thinks the pores might assist regulate temperature. However Dr. Turner says in different nests soil does this; extra analysis is required.

It’s additionally unclear how the termites work collectively to construct these buildings. They may coordinate actions by synergy, a sort of oblique communication system the place the termites reply to chemical traces left behind by others, stated Man Theraulaz, a French biologist who additionally labored on the examine. It’s believed pheromone, or chemical sign within the spit on the pellets tells the blind termites when to construct.

“They don’t have to essentially assume,” he stated. They observe guidelines that end result from evolutionary forces and performance sort of like a synthetic intelligence program.

Pondering or not, “I personally want that extra folks could possibly be like termites and be snug with pure air flow,” stated Maki San Miguel Paulson, an architect who consults on constructing envelopes — the outer layers that preserve air sealed inside buildings. Termites, she stated, “don’t need an hermetic setting. They need the air to circulation by their constructing.”

Builders sometimes deal with mechanical air flow — followers, heating and cooling — that makes use of gas and is simpler to manage. Eco-friendly buildings are sometimes smaller scale, as a result of human consolation is troublesome to attain in methods depending on various climates. “Wouldn’t it’s good if folks might do a constructing that does each?” she stated.

Dr. Singh and his colleagues hope future research of nests from different termite species will reveal normal design rules that may be scaled up for people. And as Eastgate Centre reveals, buildings impressed by termites don’t should appear to be termites constructed them.

“There’s a hazard to see lovely kinds and shapes in nature and easily copy them,” stated Mr. Pearce. “We’re not copying kinds. We’re copying the method that made the shape.”


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