Currently, the only known inhabitants of Mars are a bunch of rovers and landers sent by humans over the past few decades. If a new proposal gets the go-ahead, this gang of robots could be joined by their most innovative companions yet: a swarm of robotic bees.
The so-called Marsbees are tiny robots the size of bumblebees that could be flapping around the Red Planet in the not too distant future. Armed with tiny sensors and wireless communication devices, the bees will be able to gather data about the Martian terrain and search for hints of life like methane, before returning to a mobile base that acts as a charging station and central communication center.
This isn’t just the result of scientists binge-watching Black Mirror, the proposal of robotic bees has numerous benefits over conventional methods of Mars exploration. For one, they won’t have to deal with the unpredictable rocky terrain of Mars like a wheeled rover. Additionally, sending equipment to Mars runs the very real (and expensive) risk of failure. So, sending numerous lower-cost robots helps to negate this risk.
However, this bold plan also comes with its own new challenges, namely the logistics of flying in an alien environment. For this challenge, the scientists are turning to the flapping wings Earth-bound insects for inspiration.
“Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere,” Chang-kwon Kang, from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, explained in a statement.
“Key technical innovation includes the use of insect-like compliant wings to enhance aerodynamics and a low power design."
Proposed by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a team of researchers in Japan, the bee-sized flapping robots are one of the 25 technology projects from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) scheme. So far, the idea is in very early stages of development, however, NASA is giving its designers $125,000 and nine months to develop and fine-tune their proposal.
Another interesting project from the NIAC initiative involves a slim-lined design of space suit that will allow astronauts to moonwalk (as in, literally walk on the Moon or other planetary bodies) without a clumpy backpack. To provide them with their essential life support systems, the suit will also contain a “biobot,” a kind of smart robotic buggy that will be tethered to the astronaut. Another idea is shape-shifting robots.
If the respective teams prove their projects are feasible during this nine-month period, they will then proceed to the Phase II awards for further development.
“Phase II studies are given to the most successful Phase I fellows, whose ideas have the best possibility of changing the possible,” added Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive. “Their two-year timeframe and larger budget allow them to really get going on the business of creating the future.”