NASA could release a swarm of robot bees to explore Mars

Fourteen years ago, two rovers were set on the red planet of Mars. While one of them was deactivated in 2010, Opportunity, and of course, Curiosity, are still going strong. Now, a swarm of robot bees could be about to take flight and join the rovers as a new NASA mission proposition is made.

The exploratory robot bees, known officially as “Marsbees” are being developed to investigate areas of the red planet that are inaccessible to a robot on wheels.

The size of a bumblebee, but with wings the size of a cicada, the Marsbees have been technically designed so that they can withstand Mars’ atmosphere and environment.

“Our preliminary numerical research suggests that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere,” Chang-Kwon Kang, aerospace engineer at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, wrote in a NASA blog post. “Moreover, the power required by the Marsbee will be substantially reduced by compliant wing structures and an innovative energy harvesting mechanism.”nasa_could_release_a_swarm_of_robot_bees_to_explore_mars1

The Marsbees will also be integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices, so that they can gather samples and data as either individuals or as a swarm. They will communicate with and launch from a mobile rover base, where they will be able to go back and charge.

Kang’s US-based team will work with a group in Japan, which has already built a hummingbird micro-air vehicle which can fly in Earth’s atmosphere. Both the US team and Japanese team will work on developing flapping wings for use in the low-density Martian atmosphere.

It’s still early days for the project. For now, the engineers are looking to just simulate whether a weighty bee-like structure can hover in the Mars atmosphere. This will be tested in a vacuum chamber, where the manoeuvrability, take-off and landing power and remote sensing will all be investigated.

The Marsbee project is one of 25 other early-stage NASA technology projects announced last Friday as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts programme. The programme has been set up to help fund projects that have “the potential to transform future human and robotic exploration missions.”

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