NASA might be planning to use swarms of robotic bees to help explore Mars.
In what could be sent up to aid the work of the Mars Rover, the robotic bees, called Marsbees, are "robotic flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada sized wings", NASA said.
Created by a team in Japan, the Marsabees' objective would be 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.
The Marsbees are integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices, using a mobile base that would act as a recharging station and main communication centre.
"The swarm of Marsbee can significantly enhance the Mars exploration mission [by] facilitating reconfigurable sensor networks, creating resilient systems, [and] sampling or collecting data using single or collaborative Marsbees," NASA said in a post on its website.
The bees are able to fly thanks to the use of insect-like compliant wings to enhance aerodynamics and a low power design.
"High lift coefficients will be achieved by properly achieving dynamic similarity between the bioinspired insect flight regime and the Mars environment," NASA expalined.
"Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere."
The Marsbee also offers benefits over traditional aerospace systems, such as the smaller volume, which designed for the interplanetary spacecraft payload configuration, provides much more flexibility.
The Marsbee is also more robust when it comes to individual system failures because of its relatively small size and the small volume of airspace needed to test the system.
The proposed work combines expertise and talent from the US and Japan. While the University of Alabama team will numerically model, analyse, and optimise a flapping flyer for Martian atmospheric conditions, the Japanese team will apparently develop and test a micro flapping robot, uniquely designed and constructed for the low-density atmosphere on Mars.
"The objective of Phase I is to determine the wing design, motion, and weight that can hover with optimal power in the Mars atmospheric condition using a high-fidelity numerical model and to assess the hummingbird MAV in the Mars conditions," NASA added.
"The aerodynamic performance of the hummingbird MAV will be assessed in a vacuum chamber with the air density reduced to the Mars density."
Phase II will then assess the Marsbees' maneuverability, wind gust rejection, take-off/landing, power implications, remote sensing, and "mission optimisation".
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