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Construction with Amorphous Materials

Link to audio file (25:03)In this episode we speak with Nils Napp from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.
Napp tells us about his project to create robots that can reliably build structures in uncer…

In this episode, Sabine Hauert interviews Nils Napp from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Napp tells us about his project to create robots that can reliably build structures in uncertain, unstructured terrain. Like termites that can build complex structures using shapeless materials like mud, his robots build structures out of foam, toothpicks or bags of sand. As a first example, he’s been working on ramp building in chaotic environments remnant of disaster scenarios. Focus is given to designing algorithms that allow the robot to build up the ramp using only local information and without any preplanning. These features allow his algorithms to be scaled to multiple robots, thereby speeding up the process. Finally, Napp tells us about the challenges he faces when working with such materials, the steps needed to bring these robots out of the lab and tradeoffs with classical construction techniques. He also introduces us to his latest work in synthetic biology.

And here’s an example of another SSR robot using amorphous material by Christian Ahler.

Nils Napp
Nils Napp is a postdoctoral fellow at Radhika Nagpal’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Before coming to Harvard, Nils Napp received his Master and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington where he worked at the Klavins lab on Robotic Chemistry and Programmable Parts.

His main research focus is on control strategies for groups of robots and other distributed systems. Ultimately, he hopes to make self-organized systems that like biological systems are able to reliably work in random, unstructured, and fluctuating environments.

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By Sabine Hauert

Sabine Hauert is Assistant Professor in Robotics at the University of Bristol in the UK. Her research focusses in designing swarms that work in large numbers (>1000), and at small scales (<1 cm). Profoundly cross-disciplinary, Sabine works between Engineering Mathematics, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and Life Sciences. Before joining the University of Bristol, Sabine engineered swarms of nanoparticles for cancer treatment at MIT, and deployed swarms of flying robots at EPFL.

Sabine is also President and Co-founder of Robohub.org, a non-profit dedicated to connecting the robotics community to the world.

As an expert in science communication with 10 years of experience, Sabine is often invited to discuss the future of robotics and AI, including in the journals Nature and Science, at the European Parliament, and at the Royal Society. Her work has been featured in mainstream media including BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Economist, TEDx, WIRED, and New Scientist.