Finding Life on Mars could be Aided by Robot Swarms

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"Finding Life on Mars could be Aided by Robot Swarms"
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Mysterious caverns dotting the surface of Mars may harbor alien life.

If life does exist there, Aron Kisdi, an engineer at the University of Southampton, U.K., thinks the fastest, cheapest way to find it is by sending in swarms of robots.

While science fiction stories have painted lurid tales of robot hordes from Mars invading Earth, Kisdi wants to turn the tables on our red neighbor and send swarms of bots to it.

Kisdi, like other Mars researchers, is aware of significant Martian methane readings, a sign that life could be present on the Red Planet.

”Something interesting is going on down there,” Kisdi told “We just need to find it.”

The best way to explore the Martian caverns? Robots, asserts Kisdi. “We have sent robots to Mars a few times now,” he explains. “But we’ve only seen a small fraction of the planet.”

The engineer outlines his imaginative plan—releasing tiny robot hordes on Mars—in a paper published at Acta Astronautica, "Future robotic exploration using honeybee search strategy: Example search for caves on Mars." He believes a veritable army of mini-bots will permit huge swaths of the Martian regions to be explored in a relatively short time frame.

Invasion of the Mars-bots swarm

Using a bold swarm-sweep, Kisdi wants to deploy autonomous jumping, rolling mechanical men dubbed "Jollbots." In his mind he sees dozens—as many as 60—swarmers released upon strategic regions of the planet sweeping across the terrian like single-minded honeybees forging ahead while seeking a new hive site.

Kisdi says that when a cavern is discovered—the Jollbots will sense them by temperature variations—the robots will report to the general swarm transmitting location and data about the find to the lander.

Then the process will continue as more caves are located and reported.

After a certain amount of data has been gathered, Kisdi's Jollbots will reach a consensus about the efficacy of the cave. Is it a likely place for life to exist or not? If not they move on. If the cave seems promising it will be cataloged for a specialized bot designed to enter caverns and search for possible life.

A timely idea?

The swarm bot idea appeals to some at NASA. With budget cuts and the nature of Mars, Kisdi's idea is gaining traction.

“The hard thing about exploring Mars is providing power to robots on the surface,” David Beaty, the Mars Program Science Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told “The surface area of Mars is equal to the surface area of Earth’s continents. Traveling between one cave and another might be a distance of hundreds of miles.”

Kisdi's plan is simple, inexpensive and—most important of all—doable. Plus, it spreads the risk of losing a robot.

“…if you lose a robot,” Beaty said, “the search isn’t over.”

For the moment, Kisdi's idea has not been adopted by the NASA hierarchy, but if it is one day his Jollbots could be sniffing out methane on the plains of Mars.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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