June 19 - Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute are taking a lesson from nature. They're developing the next generation of robotic construction workers modeled after what they say is Earth's greatest builder - the mighty termite. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: Termites - small insects with an appetite for destruction and a bad reputation with home-owners. But Justin Werfel, a research scientist at Harvard, thinks the insects deserve a bit more respect. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JUSTIN WERFEL, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, HARVARD'S WYSS INSTITUTE, SAYING: "The termites are actually the greatest architects on Earth. They are millimetre scale insects building things up to 10 metres high." So impressed was Werfel and colleague Kirstin Petersen, that they travelled to Southern Africa to study how millions of the tiny insects, working autonomously but following the same set of simple rules, are able to build massive mounds out of mud - some tens of thousands of times larger than themselves. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KIRSTIN PETERSEN, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, HARVARD'S WYSS INSTITUTE, SAYING: "Going to Africa and watching them, I guess you see them manipulate this material, and the engineer in me is just amazed at how they are actually able to pack it into these super solid really useful structures." Petersen and Werfel aren't biologists - they're engineers. They are studying these termites' building techniques - all in an effort to develop the next generation of robotic construction workers. The researchers have built the first prototypes. Werfel hopes one day termite robots will change the way humans tackle challenging building projects. (SOUNDBITE) (English) JUSTIN WERFEL, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, HARVARD'S WYSS INSTITUTE, SAYING: "If we want maintenance being done on the International Space Station; if we want a moon base or a Mars colony; it may be much cheaper and more effective to send a bunch of robots to do the building rather than to send human astronauts as a first stage." Petersen says there is still a long way to go before robotic insects will be ready for work. The team is now working on developing the programming which will allow multiple robots to build sophisticated structures together - much like real termites. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KIRSTIN PETERSEN, RESEARCH SCIENTIST, HARVARD'S WYSS INSTITUTE, SAYING: "If you want to have a house built in three weeks you can certainly get it - hire a human construction crew. If you want something built on Mars. where it would be tricky for a human to work than, you know, these robots are perfect for you." Along with designing the perfect robotic builder, Werfel and Petersen hope their research will shine a more favourable light on the insect. They hope that In the future, if real termites destroy your home, their robotic cousins will be able to build it right back up. Ben Gruber, Reuters.