Researchers have proposed a swarm of collaborative robots as a better means of exploring Mars. Malek Murison reports.
Mars is a long way away. At its closest to Earth, it would be 33.9 million miles away, and at its furthest, 250 million miles. NASA’s preferred measurement is 140 million miles, with Earth’s closer orbit to the Sun lapping Mars every 2.16 years, providing the space agency with launch windows between planets whose relative positions are constantly changing.
Whichever measurement you choose, it’s clear that exploring Mars comes with enormous challenges. For human beings, these include a one-way trip lasting six to eight months of zero gravity and radiation exposure, during which time they would have to keep themselves fed, hydrated, and constantly exercised to prevent atrophy of body and mind.
Then they would have to land safely – tricky in a thin atmosphere – survive on Mars for long enough to make the project worthwhile, launch from the surface back into space, and make the journey home in the same hazardous conditions. That means carrying enough food, water, and fuel to survive a return trip that may be even longer than the first. Finally, it may take weeks or months to adjust to life back on Earth.
So far, these obstacles have proved to be insurmountable, especially since the last time astronauts ventured beyond Earth orbit was 46 years ago, when Apollo 17 touched down on the Moon. This why all explorations of Mars to date have been via telescope, space probe, or landing a robot on the surface – several attempts at which have failed.
So NASA’s solar-powered, 185 kilograms (408 lb) Mars rover, Opportunity, is a stunning scientific and technological achievement, and to date it has spent more than 5,000 days roaming the planet. But while there is no doubting the scale of NASA’s Mars progress to date, a single rover moving slowly over the surface doesn’t represent an efficient way to explore a planet.
NASA is well aware of this, and has invited research teams to submit alternative methods as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which aims to “nurture visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions with the creation of breakthroughs radically better, or entirely new aerospace concepts.”
Harnessing the power of swarms
Among the 25 shortlisted proposals are plans to develop a swarm of small, flying robotic drones, called Marsbees.
An article published by the University of Alabama’s Chang-kwon Kang provides details of a robotic program that could “increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping-wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment.”
Put simply, NASA wants to see whether a swarm of small, flying reconnaissance robots could operate in tough Martian conditions – including its much thinner atmosphere – or if the idea belongs in the realm of science fiction.
The proposed system would use a Mars rover as a kind of beehive – the home base where recharging takes place. The Marsbees might be around bumblebee size, with wings the size of a cicada’s. Each robot would be fitted with sensors and wireless communication devices.
Should the concept prove successful in tests, the exploration of Mars could benefit from an swarm that creates an adaptable, resilient sensor network. Environmental samples and data collection could be carried out by single Marsbees, or by groups working collaboratively.
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Developing the Marsbee concept will bring together expertise from both the US and Japan, with greatest challenge being to address the physics of winged flight in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Fortunately, the team from Japan has already developed similar technology, highlighted by one of the only hummingbird micro air vehicles (MAV) in the world. The University of Alabama team will now work to optimise the technology to suit the atmospheric conditions on the red planet.
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