How Termites Might Help Us Colonize Mars

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 14 2014 3:33 PM

How Termites Might Help Us Colonize Mars

Termites—the pint-sized mortal enemies of homeowners everywhere—are apparently good for more than just gnawing foundations into ruin. It seems that the eusocial insects have a mind-boggling propensity for building, and it’s got scientists in a tizzy.

Dubbed by some as the construction masters of the insect kingdom, termites work together as part of one big crew in order to build their long, labyrinth-like mounds—some rising more than 40 feet tall. That they do this without any sort of leadership structure in place—instead relying on an apparently personally innate sense of what tasks need to be completed—has long thought to hold the potential for practical application in the world of robotics.

Justin Werfel of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is among the first to put this concept to good use. Werfel and his team built a number of small, termite-inspired robots that use on-board sensors to work independently on one shared project. As of right now, the scale of the projects are small—think building a fence with Lincoln Logs—but the potential for breakthrough is definitely there. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, robots like these could hold the key to construction on Mars and other not-yet-discovered locales.

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Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

A.J. McCarthy is a Slate video blogger.

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