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ECE Seminar November 13 2019

Electrical & Computer Engineering Colloquium

November 13, 2019 12:30 P.M.

ITE 336

Refreshments will be served

Swarm Robotics for Collective Construction


Justin K Werfel

Senior Research Scientist

Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering

Harvard University



Abstract: Termites build huge, complex structures through the collective actions of millions of independent agents. These natural systems inspire the research area of collective construction, whose goal is to develop autonomous multi-robot systems that build large-scale structures according to user specifications. I will discuss the design and realization of three such systems, in which independent robots build together using local information, onboard sensing, and implicit coordination through manipulation of a shared environment. In the first, climbing robots flexibly build structures using specialized building blocks; a user can specify a precise target structure as a blueprint, and robots follow simple rules that guarantee the correct completion of that structure. The second system extends this approach to truss-based structures that can include unsupported cantilevers, where physical forces within the structure provide an additional cue for coordination. Finally, I will discuss a robot designed to drive interlocking sheet piles into soil to form anchored linear structures, which could act as foundations for further construction, or provide direct benefits for applications including soil stabilization or environmental restoration.


Bio: Dr. Werfel’s research interests are in the understanding and design of complex and emergent systems. His research includes work on swarm robotics, engineered molecular nano-systems, social insect behavior, evolutionary theory, and educational robotics. He completed his Ph.D. at MIT in 2006, developing algorithms to allow swarms of simple robots to autonomously build user-specified structures. His postdoctoral work included further exploration of collective construction at Harvard SEAS, work on the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and cancer modeling at Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital Boston.