NASA Developing Robotic Bees to Collect Samples, Map Mars Surface

3D render depicting a robot wasp, isolated on white.

NASA’s Mars rovers have gathered a lot of exciting data and photographs, but they’re moving at a snail’s pace. So how will it expedite that process? Robotic bees.

The space agency is developing bee-sized robots to map the surface of Mars and collect samples from the planet’s atmosphere. Scientists hope these insectoids will be more mobile and agile than traditional rovers.

The program, called “Marsbees,” is contracting researchers from the U.S. and Japan to build prototypes of winged robots, capable of swarming the red planet and collecting data, before returning to a rover to recharge.

 

Image courtesy uah.edu

 

One of the biggest obstacles engineers face is designing a robot that can fly in Mars’ unique climate. The red planet’s atmosphere can be pretty hostile with dust storms, low thermal inertia, and periodic ice ages. These bees will inevitably face some extreme weather conditions.

But there is one factor that may make the mission easier –  Mars’ gravitational pull is about a third of Earth’s, which could prove to be more conducive to flight.

NASA’s website envisions the robots as roughly the size of a bee, but with larger, cicada-sized wings. Researchers imagine the bees will be capable of working independently or in teams to collect samples.

The program funding the project is called the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, or NIAC, which fosters science fiction concepts with the potential for realistic applications.

The aerial bots would primarily search for methane emissions from below the planet’s surface – an indication of subterranean Martian life. NASA’s Curiosity rover previously discovered low levels of the gas, encouraging scientists to explore further.

But the technology for this apian concept doesn’t have a lot of promising precedent. Several years ago, DARPA built a hummingbird-inspired drone, with a multi-million-dollar budget. Researchers engineered it to fly steadily, but the winged machine would likely struggle in the Martian environment.

Engineers working on the Marsbees prototype will test their robots in a vacuum chamber, with conditions to simulate the climate and air density on Mars. The group is receiving just $125,000 over the course of nine months to fund their prototype, before it will be tested for feasibility by NASA. If it passes preliminary tests, it will then be eligible for a second round of funding.



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