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NASA wants to colonize Mars with robot bees

These flying robots might navigate Mars’ rocky terrain better than traditional rovers, which get stuck in the sand.

by Alex Lubben
Apr 6 2018, 7:05pm

NASA has a new plan to figure out how to navigate Mars’ rocky terrain: robotic bees.

Researchers at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, in collaboration with Japanese scientists, received funding from NASA last week for their study called “Marsbees,” which would develop tiny, winged robots to colonize the Red Planet. These flying robots might navigate Mars’ rocky terrain better than traditional rovers, which move slowly and often get stuck in the sand.

If the plan works out, the bees will deploy from a rover that will serve as their charging station and communications base. They’ll gather data from the planet’s surface and might even work together, in small swarms, to gather rocks from the planet’s surface for analysis.

But the researchers still have some kinks to iron out. For one, Martian air is less dense than Earth’s. That could affect how the bees fly.

The researchers think they have that problem figured out, though: “Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere,” wrote Chang-kwon Kang, one of the researchers from the University of Alabama.

But making a flappy-winged robot fly isn’t easy. Another group of researchers, funded by the U.S. army, spent years and over a $1 million in government funds developing the hummingbird nano air vehicle, one of the few winged robots that can fly in Earth’s atmosphere. Figuring out how to make robotic bees fly on another planet with a different atmosphere will be even more challenging. The researchers, still in their earliest phases of the study, plan to build their design in a vacuum chamber with air density levels reduced to Mars’.

Still, the project shows enough promise to earn funding from NASA, one of the 25 new projects the agency underwrote as part of its cutting-edge Innovative Advanced Concepts grant program, which seeks to turn “science fiction to science fact.”

The researchers from the University of Alabama, Huntsville, had presented their preliminary research at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aerospace Sciences Meeting.

This article originally appeared on VICE News US.