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Termite-Inspired Robots: Harvard Scientists Look To Termites For Inspiration

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

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


Termites have long been perceived as a nuisance that can cause significant damage to homes. But, what many people don’t realize is that they are incredibly complex insects. In fact, their mounds are a marvel of engineering, exhibiting a level of sophistication that has long captivated scientists. What’s more, termites have the ability to react to their environment without any prior knowledge or experience, enabling them to accomplish things far greater than many would expect.

To illustrate just how advanced these insects are, consider the fact that older members of a termite colony will willingly sacrifice themselves to protect others. This selflessness is a testament to the high degree of cooperation and social organization present in these tiny creatures. And, scientists are starting to take note of these surprisingly complex insects.

Given the incredible capabilities of termites, it’s not surprising that researchers have begun to draw inspiration from them. In recent years, scientists at Harvard University have been developing robots that are modeled after termites. These robots are designed to work collaboratively, just like termites, in order to accomplish complex tasks that would be difficult for a single robot to perform. And, these new technologies could have implications that extend far beyond the research lab.

Harvard Scientists Model New Technologies on Termite Behavior

Engineers at Harvard University have made a groundbreaking breakthrough in the development of robotics technology. And, it’s all because of termites! They have created tiny robots that are just 4 x 7 inches in size and are designed to mimic the behavior of termites, meaning they can react to their environment rather than following set instructions. Currently, the team is exploring the potential for these robots to haul and place bricks, which could make them highly useful in hazardous environments, such as those often found in the construction sector.

Termite colonies are known for their remarkable capacity to construct structures that are significantly larger than their own size, which inspired yet another innovation for scientists at Harvard. By programming their robots to function in a similar way, they have enabled the robots to carry and maneuver objects that are much larger than their own physical dimensions. And, this technology could have significant implications in the real world, as it suggests that these robots could be used for anything from construction to aiding in natural disaster support.

However, the engineers still need to address one critical challenge: making the robots as resilient as termites. These insects have proven to be highly durable and can even survive catastrophes like asteroid impacts or even nuclear disasters. And, if the team at Harvard can develop robots with a similar level of resilience, they could become highly useful tools for a range of industries.

The termite-inspired robots developed by Harvard have the potential to make a significant impact  beyond the confines of the lab. The concept of collective construction, which these robots embody, holds immense promise for several civilian applications, such as building human habitats, creating containment structures, or providing support in disaster areas. However, achieving this goal is a difficult task for robotics, as it involves addressing several complex challenges related to mechanical design, manipulation, autonomy, and multi-robot coordination. Despite the significant knowledge we have gained from studying termites, there may still be additional insights that we need to uncover before termite-inspired robots can be fully utilized in the real world.

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Dealing with Termites Outside of the Research Lab

In regard to sophistication and resiliency, termites are far from your average insect. This is evident in the fact that even prestigious universities, like Harvard, are modeling mini robots after their behaviors and abilities. Because of their complexity, it is paramount that you know how to prevent termites and how to handle an infestation if one occurs in your own home.

Termites are found in every U.S. state except Alaska and can remain undetected in a home for extended periods. So, it’s advisable to have your property professionally inspected by a pest control company annually to identify and address any potential termite issues. This allows for prompt termite treatment before these pests are able to cause structural damage. And, we don’t have termite-inspired robots ready to take care of this damage with ease just yet! Therefore, this proactive approach is crucial and can potentially save homeowners thousands of dollars in repair costs.

To stay vigilant and protect your home from a termite infestation, it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs. Here are the key signs to look out for:

  • Look for discarded wings near doors, floors, and windows.
  • Check basement corners, walls, and ceiling support beams for small tubes that termites carve to travel in.
  • Look for cracked paint on wood surfaces.
  • Tap on wood occasionally to see if it sounds hollow, which may indicate termite damage.
  • Look for wood-colored termite droppings, also known as “frass.”

While termites may be lending a helping hand to science right now, the damage they’ll do to your home will be far less exciting. Therefore, it’s important to schedule a termite inspection and leave the extermination to a termite control expert like Eliminate ‘Em. Contact us today!