Could robotic insects powered by AI beat Elon Musk to Mars?
A Japanese-American team of engineers is working to send a swarm of bee-inspired drones to the Red Planet with new, exploratory funding from NASA. Yes, bees on Mars. The team calls the concept “Marsbees.”
NASA selected the idea as part of its “Innovative Advanced Concepts” program, which annually supports a handful of early concept ideas for space exploration. The team of researchers will explore the possibility of creating a swarm of bees that could explore the Martian surface autonomously, flying from a rover. The rover would act as centralized, mobile beehive, recharging the Marsbees with electricity, downloading all the information they capture, and relaying it to Earth’s tracking stations. They describe the Marsbees as “robotic flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada-sized wings.” Those oversized wings, in relation to their bodies, compensate for the density of Mars’ atmosphere–which is much thinner than Earth’s.
The team believes that the swarm offers significant advantages over the rovers that are currently slowly rolling through the dusty planet–the old, small Opportunity rover and the Volkswagen Beetle-sized, nuclear-powered Curiosity rover. The swarm design is, by nature, more resilient than a single rover, which at most has one backup per sensor system. If one Marsbee fails, there are many others that will compensate for the loss. The bees could operate independently to collect data when needed, or act cooperatively to blanket a larger section of the Red Planet. In fact, the scientists believe they could reconfigure groups of bees to act as differing types of sensor systems. What’s more, their ability to fly will give researchers a new perspective on the planet’s surface.
But despite its clear theoretical advantages, much work needs to be done. The scientists still need to determine the wing design, how they’ll move, and the amount of power they’ll need. During the first phase of the investigation–which has been funded by NASA with $125,000–they plan to test their prototypes in a chamber that simulates the Martian’s air density. Then, in a second phase, they’ll test things like maneuverability, take-off and landing, and a potential mission.
But we all know how this movie goes, don’t we? The bees find a way to build more bees by themselves–biding their time before they move to destroy every last human colonist, except Mark Wahlberg, who must drive the beehive deep into the Martian south pole and kill them all with a thermonuclear device. The end.