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NASA wants to send robot bees to Mars

Published Apr 5th, 2018 1:36PM EDT

We know more about Mars than any other planet besides Earth, and that’s largely thanks to our ability to send high-tech equipment to its surface. Robotic rovers have been cruising around on the Red Planet for years now, and they’ve provided valuable insight into the makeup of the planet, but in terms of scope, they’ve only scoured small sections of the planet. Now, NASA is helping to fund a new tool for Mars exploration, and this time it has wings.

In an new proposal, scientists explain how the use of tiny robotic “Marsbees” could expedite exploration efforts by taking to the skies. With wireless connections to a base station — which doubles as a recharge station to give the tiny bees more power — the winged robots could cover a greater area in much less time, while performing a number of different tasks.

“The Marsbees are integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices,” Chang-kwon Kang of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, writes. “The mobile base can act as a recharging station and main communication center. The swarm of Marsbee can significantly enhance the Mars exploration mission with the following benefits: i) Facilitating reconfigurable sensor networks; ii) Creation of resilient systems; iii) Sample or data collection using single or collaborative Marsbees.”

The proposal was selected as part of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which means its creators get around $125,000 in support from NASA to build on their idea. After the initial phase, if the concept continues to show promise it may be eligible for further support from the agency, and potentially become part of a future mission. The Marsbee idea still has a long way to go before it comes to fruition, but it seems to be off to a fairly promising start.

In the initial proposal, the tiny cube-shaped bots sport insect-like wing structures that are optimized for the Martian atmosphere and would be highly efficient in managing power. In the first phase of development, the team will seek to prove that a pint-sized robot can hover in a Mars-like environment while drawing minimal power. Further work, which will focus on wind compensation, takeoff and landing, and mission applications, will be tackled in Phase II, assuming the concept makes it that far.