The future of planetary exploration could be down to robotic versions of Earth’s wildlife if recent NASA funding of early stage technology research come to fruition. The latest technology in the world of surveillance robotics is using the animal kingdom for inspiration and a project developing electronic bees was among those awarded a $125,000 grant by NASA. The grants have been awarded to tech R&D that could be used by NASA to explore Mars and other extra-terrestrial targets such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.
‘Marsbees’ as the technology has been dubbed are ‘about the size of bumblebees’ but equipped with significantly larger wings, required for flight in Mars’ atmosphere, which is about 100 times thinner than Earth’s. The robotic insects would also carry an array of microscopic sensors and communication technology used to gather and transmit data back to NASA. Marsbees are being developed by Chang-kwon Kang of the University of Alabama.
Other projects awarded grants included a “steam propelled autonomous retrieval robot for ocean worlds” called the ‘Sparrow’. The robot uses a sparrow-eque hopping movement to explore tricky terrain of the kind that would be encountered on Europa. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab stated the ‘Sparrow’ will allow for the “rapid traverse of great distances”. The University of Maryland’s ‘biobot’ was also awarded a grant. The biobot’s role resembles that of a Space camel or mule, a would trundle behind astronaut explorers on Mars carrying supplies such as water, food and oxygen. In all, 25 early stage technology programmes developing robotics and other equipment to aid exploration were awarded grants as part of the NASA initiative.
Technology is already exploring Mars but the rovers currently in use, that use traditional wheels to move across the surface, are very slow. Since being dropped on Mars six years ago, the Curiosity rover has managed to cover just 11.2 miles. The newer generations of animal-inspired robotics would not only be much faster but hopefully be able to explore more inaccessible terrain and geographical features such as canyons, nooks and crevices.
NASA is no longer alone in its attempts to gain further scientific insight from Space and planetary exploration. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company plans manned missions to Mars as part of a process the eventual aim of which is a permanent human colony on the Red Planet. The first test flights of SpaceX’s BFR (big f****g rocket) spacecraft could take place as early as next year. The enthusiasm of human volunteers to travel in it might, however, be in doubt. Musk has gone on record as saying there is a “good chance” the first passengers will die.