Spearheaded by engineers, the project has led its researchers into the fields of biology and architecture. All three authors have visited Namibian termite hordes to implement data collection mechanisms in native mound-building colonies.
“Obviously we’re not entomologists, and we’re not trying to do something they can do much better,” Petersen said. “But we’re computer scientists, so we can help them by building tools that will allow them to gather much more quantitative and qualitative data on the termites.”
Underlying Nagpal, Werfel, and Petersen’s work on the termite-inspired robots are a series of broader questions about the emergent outcomes of many individual actions.
“It’s easy if you have a lot of low-level rules to predict the high-level outcome,” Petersen said. “If you have specific high-level outcome in mind, it’s hard to figure out what the lower-level rules should be.”
—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jessicabarzilay.