What if you could make robots work like termites, each one performing a simple task without relying on a central chip or “queen” to control their movements. This week, a team from Harvard University is reporting they did just that: inventing small autonomous bots that can build brick-like structures with just a few simple low-level commands.

“Each of the robots is doing their own thing, there isn’t a brain in the sky,” said Justin Werfel, a research at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Werfel and colleagues based their research on methods used by termites in the African desert to construct huge mounds as an example of what can be done given the right programming.

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“We look at that system and we say that’s fantastic,” Werfel said. “That’s proof of principal that a large number of independent agents can be capable of building large-scale complex things.”

Werfel’s research, appearing in today’s journal Science, was conducted over the past three years.

The robots can make towers, castles and pyramids out of foam bricks, building themselves staircases to reach the higher levels and adding bricks wherever they are needed. Werfel says that in the future, similar robots could lay down sandbags before a flood, or perform simple construction tasks on Mars.

“If you had a robotic system, you could keep the people out of harm’s way,” he said.

To accomplish the project, the team had two tasks. First, to build the robots. Second, to find a way for them to work together cooperatively to build something more complex than any of them could individually.

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Werfel explained that the robots were given a series of simple rules to follow, like traffic signs, to guide them through the structure, when to put down a brick, turn around or climb higher. They were able to interact with their environment to determine where to put the next brick.

The advantage is that by using large numbers of smaller robots, a breakdown by one doesn’t jeopardize the whole project.

“People have made a robot that can move a piece here or there, but to put it all together with multiple robots and a large structure is a breakthrough in the field,” said Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University. “It’s a sign of things to come.”

Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, called the paper an important advance because it shows the power of autonomous, independent robots to build things on their own. That could come in handy in the future.

“It’s very hard to control things from here to the moon,” Bar-Yam said. “If you don’t need remote control systems, then the requirements for enabling the system to be effective will change. It may enable the technology to advance more rapidly.”