How robotic bees can carry out the all-important pollinating work of their natural counterparts is a very active area of research on Earth, but a newly approved NASA project suggests their duties might not be limited to our home planet. The space agency has just green-lighted a research project to investigate how swarms of winged flyers might spread out over the surface of Mars, equipping our exploration efforts with a much wider net.
Here on Earth scientists have looked to harness the natural flight mechanics of the humble bee to give dwindling bee populations a helping hand with pollination, as well as work together on search and rescue operations, crop monitoring and even espionage missions. But how would robo-bees fare on the Red Planet?
According to early research carried out by the scientists in Japan and the University of Alabama working on the project, this foreign, hostile environment might not actually be so hostile for these interplanetary robo-insects. They say that their preliminary results indicate a bumblebees' wings can produce enough lift to hover in the planet's atmosphere, which is around 100 times thinner than our own.
Dubbed Marsbees, the robots would launch from a ground rover, which would be a mobile base of sorts, keeping them charged up and handling all their communications. The swarms of Marsbees would take off and use onboard sensors and wireless communications devices to gather information about Mars, just like current rovers do, but covering greater areas from their aerial vantage point.
It all sounds pretty impressive, but the Marsbees project is still in its very early stages. It is one of 25 proposals chosen by the space agency under its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts initiative (NIAC), and the team has been awarded around US$125,000 to further develop the idea.
That means carrying out further modeling and analysis of flapping wings in the Martian atmosphere and the fleshing out the design. The Japanese contingent of the team already has a micro-flapping robot, dubbed the hummingbird Micro-Air Vehicle, which it claims is one of the few robotic flappers on Earth that can actually fly.
Over the next couple of years, they will examine its performance in a vacuum chamber reduced to the air density of Mars, and work to optimize its wing design, motion and weight for the Martian conditions. NASA notes that most of the projects selected for phase one of the NIAC still require a decade or more of technological development before they might be ready for use on a mission, but all are encouraged to dream big.
"Phase II studies are given to the most successful Phase I fellows, whose ideas have the best possibility of changing the possible," said Derleth. "Their two-year timeframe and larger budget allow them to really get going on the business of creating the future."
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