Dr. Kirstin H. Petersen

April 23rd 




REAL talk: “Collective construction by termite-inspired robots”


The REAL group introduces guest speaker Dr. Kirstin H. Petersen from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany. Her current research includes novel actuation methods for untethered soft robots and development of soft robot collectives.


Traditional construction techniques require careful preplanning and direct human operation of tools and materials. Automating construction could improve its speed and efficiency and enable construction in settings too difficult or dangerous for human workers. Nature provides us with impressive examples of construction: many species of termites build mounds several orders of magnitude larger than themselves, achieving complex architectures with incredible parallelism, robustness, and scalability.

The majority of the talk will concern TERMES, a team of termite-inspired construction robots. The system is composed of an algorithmic framework for decentralized construction of three-dimensional user-specified structures, and a complete physical implementation of robots assembling such structures using only local sensing and simple control. A major contribution of this work is the translation of abstract models to a real robotic system. This was achieved by leveraging embodied – rather than explicit – intelligence through careful synergistic design of robots and algorithms, and of robots and building material. In addition to the TERMES project she will also briefly present methods and tools developed to study and record the behavior of mound-building Namibian termites in more detail than has been done in the past, and her current research focus on soft robot collectives for construction. Dr. Kirstin H. Petersen work advances the aim of engineering collective robotic systems that achieve human-specified goals, using biologically-inspired principles for robustness and scalability.