On 30th March, NASA announced the project of launching robotic bees on the planet Mars. Though the project is in its early stages, it will be time efficient and cost-effective.
Two research teams of the University of Alabama will work in collaboration with a Japanese team. The team of the University of Alabama will work on numerical models and the Japanese team will design and test a micro-flapping-bot prototype.
Basically, the idea is to replace the modern rovers that are slow, bulky and very expensive with swarms of sensor-studded, fast-moving micro-bots which would be relatively less-costly. Therefore the swarm of robotic bees will not face this problem while moving around the surface of the Red Planet. The body of the Marsbee, as the name given to it, would be similar to that of an actual bumblebee, while its larger wings will be about the size of a cicada. According to the NASA officials, the little bots are, “flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada-sized wings.” Researchers are currently exploring the most effective mode of flight, whether flapping through flapping, fixed-wing or rotor.
Reports said that the largest species of bumblebee grows to be up to 1.6 inches (4 centimeters) long whereas the American bumblebee is about a quarter of that size. The formal scientific descriptions said that Cicada wings can vary from 1.2 inches (3 centimeters) to more than double that length, depending on the species.
Another advantage of this project is Mars’ low gravity. It has only one-third of Earth’s gravitational pull hence the Marsbees will have an advantage of the thin atmosphere. The “bees” will not only map the Martian terrain but also collect samples of the planet’s thin air, in the hope of finding methane gas to give a possible sign of life. Earlier NASA’s Curiosity rover detected low levels of the gas but it is unknown whether it was biologically produced.
Since the rotary-wing bots like quadcopters are much more popular, the flapping-wing bots are pretty uncommon and less used in research. The flapping-wing design of the “bee” will feed on low-power hence the highly efficient technologies will lead the project to another dimension on the Red Planet.
The objective of the proposed work is to increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment. – Chang-kwon Kang, University of Alabama
The Marsbees will be bound to a mobile “hive,” in the form of a traditional rover. The rover will become the home base at which the Marsbees will recharge and store data. The technologies of the Marsbees will facilitate sending information whilst in-flight through Wi-Fi.
NASA expects feasibility studies to last a decade before the project moves onto Phase II.