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Scientists look to termites for inspiration for new technology

(Eliza Grinnell / Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)

(Eliza Grinnell / Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)


Most people see termites as nothing more than pesky insects that can wreak havoc on a home. But termites are much more than that – they’re highly sophisticated bugs, so much so that the mounds they build are a feat of engineering in and of itself. Furthermore, termites react to what they encounter, as they don’t have any preconceived notion of what and what not to do, which basically means they can do things far greater than many would expect.

Heck, termites are so advanced that older members of the colony will sacrifice themselves, essentially blowing themselves up, to protect others in the colony.

Yes, termites are much more than just a pesky insect that can cause great structural damage if an infestation starts brewing inside your home. And now science is starting to take note.

Harvard scientists model new technologies on termite behavior

Specifically, engineers at Harvard University have built small, 4 x 7 inch robots which are programmed to behave in the same way as termites – by reacting to environmental stimuli rather than taking orders. As it stands, the team at Harvard is experimenting with having the robots haul and place bricks, as there could be promise for this termite-inspired technology in the construction sector – particularly settings that are dangerous for humans.

Just like a termite, which is able to build mounds much bigger than its own physical stature, if the robots are programmed to work in this manner, they could technically do the same thing – build structures in hazardous environments that are much bigger than their own stature.

Now all the Harvard engineers need to do is figure out how to make their “termite” robots as resilient as the insects they’re modeled after. As you may know, termites are believed to have survived the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Many scientists believe they could also survive in the wake of nuclear destruction.

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Dealing with termites outside of the research lab

In regards to sophistication and resiliency, termites are far from your average insect. Just think: would engineers at a university – let alone one as prestigious as Harvard – be modeling mini robots off of the insects to conduct similar tasks if they weren’t? And that’s why it’s paramount that if you have a termite infestation, you leave the extermination to the professionals.

Termites are found in every U.S. state except for Alaska and can be present in a home for long periods of time before a homeowner even realizes that there’s a problem. In fact, it’s recommended that you have your property professionally inspected every year by a pest control company, so that if you have a termite issue it can be handled before structural damage starts to set in. Regular inspections can potentially save homeowners thousands of dollars in repair costs.

Here are some common signs of a termite infestation:

·         Look for any discarded wings that are around the doors, floors and windows of your home.

·         Check basement corners, walls and ceiling support beams for signs of the small tubes that termites carve to travel in.

·         Look for cracked paint on wood surfaces.

·         Hollow wood: Termites eat wood from the inside out, due to the fact that they prefer cool, damp spaces. So give your wood a tap every now and then. If it sounds hollow, you could have a problem.

·         Termite droppings: Also known as “frass,” termite droppings are wood-colored.

While termites may be lending a helping hand to science right now, they’ll do anything but that to your home. That’s why it’s important to schedule annual inspections and leave extermination to the pest control experts if there’s a termite problem in your home.