Mars is one of the potentially habitable planet that humans could visit one day. For this purpose, several space agencies have sent numerous spacecraft, probes, orbiters, space and ground-based telescopes in order to understand it better. In an innovative mission, NASA wants to send a swarm of robotic bees or Mars Bees on the red planet to investigate the planet faster and collect abundant information when compared to ground-based rovers and probes.
Known as Mars Bees, these are small flapping wing bumblebee-sized flying robots with cicada wings that will be capable of flying even in the thin Martian atmosphere compared to that of Earth. Its main function will be to take samples and measure the atmospheric conditions of the red planet. A team at the University of Alabama and a team of scientists based in Japan are investigating its feasibility and then, the prototype and actual model will be prepared and manufactured.
Researchers will use a vacuum chamber to mimic the atmosphere of Mars on Earth so that the feasibility of these flying robots can be ascertained. Chang-Kwon Kong, a researcher at the University of Alabama said in the research paper that preliminary numerical results of the proposed system suggest that a robot equivalent to the size of a bumblebee with flapping wings analogous to cicada can produce enough lift for the robots to fly even in the Martian atmosphere with ease. He added that the power required for these robots will be greatly reduced with the unique shaped wings. These robots will use the rover on the ground such as Curiosity as the main communication station and a charging point. The data obtained by these robots will be routed to the rover from where it will be sent back to the Earth for the researchers to analyze it.
Both the teams involved in this project received a grant of US $125,000 as a part of NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Initiative (NIAC) which provides financial aid to such concepts that can prove instrumental in its development. The Japanese counterpart of the team has successfully developed and tried one-of-a-kind hummingbird-like robot which flew successfully when tested. The team will develop the bumblebee-sized Mars Bees as per the model designed by the U.S. based team and then, test it until it functions properly.
According to the researchers, the swarm of robotic bees will work in a group, however, they have capabilities to perform individually in case if one of the robots fails during a mission. It can also perform as a hive mind to carry out its functions. The team which is developing the system presently in its preliminary stage will have to figure out an array of things before it can prove fit to flight on the red planet. For instance, the team will have to figure out how they will develop these tiny robots, how it will be launched and land on the Martian atmosphere. The project funded by NIAC might change the understanding of Mars as well as it will be used in many applications if successful.
Jim Reuter of NASA stated how Niac could be instrumental in the exploration of extraordinary and visionary ideas that will help the space agency prosper in space exploration and encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to invest time and efforts in the future missions.