NASA wants to send flying swarms of robot 'bees' to explore Mars

iStockBumblebee from Transformers at Esplanade Penang, Malaysia.
  • NASA commissioned a team of scientists to develop bio-inspired ‘bees’ to explore Mars.
  • The tiny drones will have bumblebee shaped bodies and wings inspired by cicadas, the optimal shape for generating lift in the Martian atmosphere.
  • The ‘Marsbees’ have a number of advantages over traditional, rotary-powered drones.

Move over, Elon Musk. Future exploration of Mars may not be carried out by humans at all if a team of researchers has their way.

Engineers are developing swarms of robotic ‘bees’ that can hover above the Martian surface, collecting data and communicating with a mobile exploration base. It’s bio-inspired engineering at its finest.

NASA commissioned a team at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, working in conjunction with a team of Japanese scientists, to develop the flying, micro-sized robots.

Here’s how they’d work, according to NASA: The Marsbees would be launched by a rover, acting as a sort of mobile base and recharging station. Inspired by insects, the robot ‘bees’ would have bodies shaped like bumblebees, with wing structures reminiscent of cicadas.

MarsbeesNASAA depiction of how the Marsbee swarm would work.

The bees would be able to fly by flapping their wings, generating enough lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere. There are a few specific advantages to using flapping, insectoid robots over traditional rotary-powered drones, according to NASA.

First, the robots would make for a much lighter payload, giving scientists the ability to deploy more robots to Mars for data collection. Second, the bees would function in mini-swarms, meaning if one gets destroyed, it’s not a huge loss.

While the Marsbees are promising, they’re still years away from being deployed on research missions.

There are only a few flapping drones that can actually fly in Earth’s atmosphere (a hummingbird drone developed by the Japanese team) and NASA’s robot bees are still in Phase I – the very early stages of design.

The future of space exploration, however, could belong to the (robot) insects.

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