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Feb 14, 2014 09:55 AM EST

Scientists have built termite-like robots that can build structures meters high even without the presence of a leader.

The lack of a leader means the bots did not have an overall plan and could only follow simple rules. According to BBC News, the Harvard researchers published their work in the journal Science and presented it at this week's American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

"We're not going to Mars anytime soon, but a more medium-term application might be to use similar robots in flood zones to build levees out of sandbags," study lead author Dr. Justin Werfel, of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, told BBC News. "That's a kind of classic of robotics: you want to use them in situations that are dirty, dangerous and dull."

The main advantages to these bots is they can get into tiny spaces that humans cannot go, or that may be too dangerous to go. Not having a central figure in charge of leading the bots means that if one is destroyed, the others will continue to operate.

"Normally, at the beginning, you have a blueprint and a detailed plan of how to execute it, and the foreman goes out and directs his crew, supervising them as they do it," Werfel said in a press release. "In insect colonies, it's not as if the queen is giving them all individual instructions. Each termite doesn't know what the others are doing or what the current overall state of the mound is."

The bots move around with wheel legs called "whegs," but they are not optimized for speed. According to CNN, three bots put together a trident-like structure with eight blocks in half an hour.

Study co-author Kristen Peterson said each one has four sensors to help them recognize patterns, maintain distance, interpret shapes and also for navigation.

"We co-designed robots and bricks in an effort to make the system as minimalist and reliable as possible," Petersen said in the release. "Not only does this help to make the system more robust; it also greatly simplifies the amount of computing required of the onboard processor. The idea is not just to reduce the number of small-scale errors, but more so to detect and correct them before they propagate into errors that can be fatal to the entire system."

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