NASA / Associated Press
NASA has granted funding to a plan that will send bee-like aerial drones to explore the vast surface of Mars.
The “Innovative Advanced Concepts” program chooses a few such projects to support every year. 2018 has introduced $125,000 worth of official support for a plan that would populate Mars’ atmosphere with specially-designed “Marsbees” which would autonomously explore the planet around a central rover playing the part of their hive.
Taeyoung Lee and his associates at the University of Alabama “figured that our interdisciplinary backgrounds in fluid mechanics, structural dynamics and control would be particularly useful to study insect-like flying robots,” and so the idea was born.
The scientists have described the drones as “robotic flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada-sized wings.” They will need those disproportionate flappers in order to stay aloft in the thin, hostile Martian atmosphere. Solar cells embedded in those wings will offer an extra bit of power, aiding in holding the battery, motor, sensors, and communications module with which each drone will be equipped. When tired, they will buzz back to the hive rover to recharge and relay information that it will then transmit back to Earth.
Lee and his colleagues are in the very early concept stages and have acquired a vacuum chamber in which to simulate the Martian atmosphere. “All of the design parameters, such as the size and the shape of the wing, the flapping frequency, the mission design, should be optimized for the Mars environment,” he said.
It is no doubt an exciting project, despite its prenatal stage of development. Not so difficult, then, to understand what all the “buzz” is about.