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New Idea for Mars Exploration: Roaming Robot Swarms With Honeybee Instincts

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Forget sending huge, expensive remote-controlled robot probes to Mars--could a swarm of smaller, cheaper units that roam the surface using honeybee-like thinking actually do the job better?

Just last week, NASA's next Martian rover Curiosity got its first taste of Mars-like conditions inside a pressure and atmospheric chamber designed to simulate the kind of environment it'll encounter when it actually lands on Mars's regolith several years from now. It's a huge, complex process to get this huge (9-foot long, 2,000 pound), complex vehicle ready for its scientific mission. But could an alternative plan--landing a fleet of semi-intelligent swarm robots--actually be a better way to explore the Martian surface? New research from the University of Southampton suggests that it may be.

The work is from scientist Aron Kisdi, who recently published a paper outlining the plan in the journal Acta Astronautica. The idea is to use a swarm of small robots to cover more ground more swiftly and with more redundancy than is possible with a single large device, with the multiple machines relying on a system called "quorum sensing." This is close to how honeybees decide to act and share information--where individual scout bees navigate a new area, remembering where they went and what they saw, and then fly back to the hive to communicate findings to the main mass of bees, after which point a group decision is made and acted upon.

To replicate this kind of activity, a fleet of simple rolling-jumping robots dubbed Jolibots have been constructed and commanded by a dedicated computer program, all to test the principles of how the system would work on Mars. In the real situation, 40 to 60 robots would be released by a lander, and then they'd swarm out over the landscape, recording what they find en route. Robots that found something "interesting" (be it a temperature change in a cave, a region with higher humidity, or similar) would return to the lander by the quickest route and share their findings. Data stored in the lander from all the swarm members findings could then be used to determine the next course of action for individual 'bots--including a return to the site to explore in more detail, or a shelving of that particular location because a different robot found more still more interesting data.

Think of it as a fleet of Eves (from Pixar's Wall-E movie) that skitter around a huge region looking for scientifically fascinating data. The group behavior would be extremely complicated and emergent--not predetermined, pre-programmed or remote-controlled--although it's likely NASA engineers would keep a close eye on things, ready to override the group's decisions should they determine a conclusion than the one decided by the robots.

This idea, versus a mission like Curiosity, is that it could be far cheaper to create, launch, land, and operate, and since you're using multiple cheap robots, it wouldn't matter if several were damaged or rolled into unescapable sand pits or craters--the kind of navigational disaster that's struck the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars over the last year or so. And it doesn't mean there's no place for a larger rover. When the first broad-sweep data is in from the swarm 'bots, then it's a good time to send out the expensive rover--since you'd know more precisely where to look for interesting data, and have some sense of the detailed trickiness of the terrain.

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