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Jim Bendon / Flickr

Termites, ants, and bees are known for the massive, complex habitats they construct for their colonies. Computer scientists from Harvard have cracked part of the code that lets termites build their mounds. By studying animal models like this one, published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists hope to develop better codes for robots.

Why they did it: It's common for roboticists and programmers to look to nature for inspiration. Machines that work in groups face some of the same challenges that insects do, Ben Green, an author of the study and mathematician at Harvard, tells Axios. Green says that like insects, "each device only has a small set of knowledge, so they need to work together to find a solution."

What they found: Past research has suggested termites coordinate building by leaving behind pheromones or chemical signals, and later deposit pellets of soil in the signaled areas. But in this study, the termites preferred to excavate where other termites were currently digging, and their behavior was focused around digging, not building. The researchers used their data to create a model that mimicked the excavation behavior of the termites.

Follow the leader: It's still unclear how termites choose where to dig in the first place, says Green. But once one termite selected a dig site, the others quickly followed.

How they did it: The researchers captured 396 termites of two different species, and used videos to track individuals as they constructed channels and walls in a controlled environment.

"These groups are able to achieve incredible things," says Green, "far more than any individual would be able to do."

Go deeper

35 mins ago - World

Sudan's military places civilian prime minister under house arrest

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok during a 2020 news conference in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Sudan's civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was put under house arrest and several other ministers were also detained Monday in what appears to be a military coup in the country, per local reports.

Why it matters: The arrests of the civilian faction in the Sudanese government came a day after U.S. envoy Jeffrey Feltman met with the head of the military faction of the Sudanese government General Abdul Fattah al-Burhan and warned him against staging a coup.

"Atmospheric river" swings Northern California from drought to flood

Satellite view of the bomb cyclone swirling off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and the atmospheric river affecting California on Oct. 24. Photo: CIRA/RAMMB

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are delivering historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest — triggering widespread power outages and flooding.

Why it matters: The strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is causing Northern California to whiplash from drought to flood.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Saudi dissident claims MBS said he could get "poison ring" to kill king

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the Saudi Green Initiative Forum, via video link, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A former senior Saudi intelligence official who worked with the U.S. on counterterrorism alleged to "60 Minutes" in an interview broadcast Sunday that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed in 2014 killing the kingdom's then-monarch.

Why it matters: The claim by the exiled Saad al-Jabri, whom Saudi authorities describe as "a discredited former government official," that the crown prince, known as "MBS," allegedly said he could obtain a "ring from Russia" to carry out the attack, is one of several serious but unproven allegations he made on the CBS show.