One of nature's most ingenious builders is the humble termite. With a brain the size of a grain of sand, it works alongside hundreds of thousands of mound-mates to build colossal and complex mud structures. Termites captured the attention of Harvard robotics researchers because the insects don't take orders from some central termite architect. Each termite works alone according to genetically programmed rules of behavior. Together, as a swarm of single-minded individuals, they create monumental works of mud.
Inspired by termites, researchers at Harvard's Self-organizing Systems Research Group have built small construction robotics programmed to work together as a swarm. The four-wheeled robots can build brick-like walls by lifting each brick, climbing the wall and laying the brick in an open spot. They have sensors to detect the presence of other robots and rules for getting out of each other's way. Like termites, no one is "controlling" them, but they are programmed to collectively build a specific design.
Imagine the applications: Swarming robots building levee walls along a dangerously flooded coastline; thousands of tiny robots constructing a space station on Mars; or deep underwater gas pipelines being assembled by swimming swarms of bots. A similar experiment used a swarm of autonomous flying robots to build an artfully undulating brick tower [source: Liggett].