A review of collective robotic construction

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science Robotics  13 Mar 2019:
Vol. 4, Issue 28, eaau8479
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aau8479


  • Fig. 1 The emerging field of CRC is at the intersection of many existing fields.

    Common research themes are highlighted in the corners.

    (Credit: A. Kitterman/Science Robotics)
  • Fig. 2 Collective construction exists across many scales and colony sizes in the animal kingdom, as approximately outlined in the graph.

    These have inspired a variety of CRC systems spanning the spectrum of centralized to decentralized coordination, which, in turn, is strongly linked to the type of platform and material chosen. The bottom right photo shows what has yet to be achieved with CRC: construction with readily available, arbitrary materials.

    [Credit: A. Kitterman/Science Robotics. Photo credits: Petrochelidon rufocollaris, Dictyostelium discoideum, A. mellifera, M. michaelseni, and P. socius, Kirstin H. Petersen/Cornell University; T. rugatulus, Daniel Charbonneau/Arizona State University; C. canadensis, Robert McGouey Wildlife/Alamy Stock Photo; Anelosimus eximius, BIOSPHOTO/Alamy Stock Photo; O. smaragdina and E. burchellii, Michael Rubenstein/Northwestern University; centralized control (12), ETH Zurich; communication (28), Ross Knepper/Cornell University; templated (8), Andrew Russell/Monash University; emergent (23), K. H. Petersen; predefined (44), K.H.; amorphous (69), Nils Napp/University at Buffalo; continuous (32), Mirko Kovac/Imperial College London; arbitrary materials, Don Chandler/DiscoverLife]
  • Fig. 3 Abstract state representations are required for executing high-level construction tasks and must match the particular CRC platform and target application.

    (A) Discrete, rigid components assemble themselves into a floating bridge (36). (B) Robots build adaptive ramp structures using functions over continuous domains to model the world and assembly actions (11). (C) Flying robots build tensile structures by planning discrete linking points where ropes intersect (31).

    [Credit: A. Kitterman/Science Robotics. Photo credits: (A) Mark Yim/University of Pennsylvania; (B) N. Napp; (C) Robert Stuart-Smith/University of Pennsylvania, Architectural Association AA.DRL]
  • Fig. 4 CRC systems span many material and mechanism combinations.

    Struts assembled by ground (36) (A) and aerial vehicles (13) (B), continuous aerial material extrusions (30) (C), custom brick structures (25) (D), and fibers (35) (E).

    [Credit: A. Kitterman/Science Robotics. Photo credits: (A) Ron Pelrine/SRI International; (B) Vijay Kumar/University of Pennsylvania; (C) Marco Dorigo/Université Libre de Bruxelles; (D) M. Kovac; (E) Achim Menges/Stuttgart University]


  • Table 1 Examples of key principles extracted from collective construction in nature and related publications in the field of robotics.

    Key biological principleReferences
      Stigmergy(9, 11, 22, 24, 25, 45, 52, 70)
      Templates(22, 24)
      Blind bulldozing(6, 71)
      Reactive and interactive construction(11, 51, 52, 63)
      Task allocation(41, 54, 72)
      Robot/brick codesign(27, 48, 69, 74)
      Compliant materials(22, 24, 57)
      Amorphous depositions(57)
      Fibers(35, 66)
  • Table 2 Material and binding mechanisms demonstrated with CRC.

    Discrete materials
      Bricks (square, rectangular, and heterogeneous)(14, 37, 42, 47)
      Struts(16, 26, 36, 40, 56)
      Sandbags(24, 57)
      On-site materials (rocks)(8, 17, 19, 62)
      Alternative (popcorn and toothpicks)(57, 61)
    Continuous materials
      Hardening foams(10, 11, 30, 53)
      Fibers(31, 35, 66, 75)
      Concrete(2, 28)
    Material binders
      Active and passive interlocking features(48, 64, 74, 76)
      Magnetism(13, 27)
      Glue(15, 36, 57)
      Melted plastic filaments(77)
      Living plants(63)

Stay Connected to Science Robotics

Navigate This Article