Science & Technology

NASA Wants to Send Robo-Bees to Mars

If you were to choose the soundtrack for a robot explorer landing on Mars, what piece of music would you choose? Maybe something epic, like Gustav Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War." Maybe something more science-fictiony, like David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Well, as apropo as either of those choices would be, the next rover to touch down on the Red Planet might best be suited by "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Bee, Two, One, Blast Off!

They're still working out the kinks, but this solution that NASA has just decided to start funding could make exploring Mars a lot faster and cheaper — not to mention give us more opportunities for Oprah GIFs. The Marsbee program (yes, it's really called that) involve a swarm of bee-sized flying robots. They'd all pack into a rover, which they'd treat as their mobile hive. While it rolls along the ground, the swarm takes flight, covering a much broader area than anything on wheels.

Once deployed, a Marsbee will start gathering data on its environment using teeny-tiny, yet sophisticated sensors. Its chief concern will be the atmosphere — these bees are searching for traces of methane. Previously, the gas had been detected by the Curiosity rover, and scientists are eager to see if they can find more since it could be a sign of Martian life. Regardless of whether the Marsbee finds the gas it's looking for, it'll end each long day of searching with a return to the rover in order to recharge its batteries.

Marsbees are being developed by two teams, one from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and one based out of Japan. The American team will develop a mathematical model for flapping-wing flight in the Martian environment, while the Japanese team will draw on its previous success with Earth-based, hummingbird-like fliers to build and test Marsbees in a controlled environment. And great news: those controlled environments can be found all over the world since the tiny mass of the robots makes them testable even in relatively small facilities.

The Bee's Needs

When engineers make drones to fly on the planet Earth, they usually use rotary wings like the ones on a helicopter. When honeybees fly on Earth, they do it by flapping their tiny, 1-centimeter (o.4-inch) wings up and down. These honeybee-sized robots, however, will fly on flapping wings about the size of a cicada's (roughly 1 inch or 3 centimeters), which would let them take flight even in the thin atmosphere of Mars. But even with those extra-large wings, the robo-bugs will only be able to achieve lift-off on the Red Planet thanks to the fact that it has much lower gravity than the Earth.

Big wings make sense in a thin atmosphere, but why do they have to flap? If rotary wings work so well on Earth, then why not rely on them on other planets? Helicopter-style flight does allow for greater control, but the Marsbees' flexible wings each feature an energy-storing spring to reduce their overall power consumption. As an added bonus of the compact, energy-friendly design, the Marsbees will be able to adapt to the tasks at hand by using their battery power entirely on their reconfigurable sensor systems. Overall, this cyber-hive could turn out to be the key to our next steps into the solar system.

Why Mars?

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 18, 2018

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