Termites’ nests embody self-assembly of a different kind. Their nest is a giant ecosystem, complete with fungal farms and a sophisticated temperature control system , built by termites employing local cues from pheromones to orchestrate their behaviour.
Now a team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, a biomimetic powerhouse, has created robots which can build a variety of large structures using algorithmic local cues after the manner of the termites. The bi g difference is that the robots can be programmed to execute a planned structure, rather as DNA can be programmed to create detailed structures on the basis of a computer coded algorithm defining its sticky end connections. The same planned structure will be built in a different order because once the robots start there is uncertainty about which particle robot will encounter which already built part of environment at any given time. The result though is always the same, just as it doesn’t matter in which order you complete a jigsaw.
The termites, of course have no master plan: the only rule governing the final form is that it has been selected by natural selection.
Science, 14 February 2014, pp. 754-758.