Insect-like robots may one day swarm over the surface of Mars, helping scientists better study the planet, says a University of Missouri-Rolla researcher developing this new breed of robots.
Dr. K.M. Isaac, professor of aerospace engineering at UMR, is working with NASA, The Ohio Aerospace Institute (OAI) and Georgia Institute of Technology to create a robotic flying machine called an Entomopter.
The mechanical insect, capable of crawling as well as flying, will be able to study, videotape, photograph, and gather other types of information about planets, specifically Mars, closer than any current technology, Isaac says. Scientists hope to send these robotic bugs to Mars by the end of the decade, he adds.
The project name is "Planetary Exploration Using Biomimetics." "Biomimetics" refers to the development of machines that imitate birds or flying insects.
Isaac's part of the research is centered on creating the Entomopter's wings. He must find the optimal size and shape for the wings to develop the necessary lift needed to make it fly. For the past six months, he and his graduate student, Pavan Shivaram, have been working on computer simulations and prototypes of the Entomopter's wings.
This is where the study of insects really comes into play. The shape and weight, as well as the frequency in which the insect wings move, are quite different compared to conventional aircraft wings. Isaac is reviewing biologists' research about insects and birds in order to closely mimic an actual insect wing that can be scaled up to the Entomopter's size.
This research combines biological studies with aerospace engineering and robotics to develop the Entomopters.
"This is very exploratory. One of the reasons that they want to do this (project) is to double up these individual technologies and be ready to use them when things are available," Isaac says.
Isaac first learned of this research when a former student, Thomas Scott, contacted him about six months ago to see if he would be interested in becoming involved. Isaac was very enthusiastic about the prospect.
The robotic insect has been patented with the name "Entomopter" which combines the concept of entomology with the word helicopter.
The Entomopter could be as large as 5 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet long. The smallest it could be made depends on how small and light researchers can make the camera and other instruments and still fit them into the body of the robotic bug.
Researchers face several challenges in their attempts to ready the Entomopter for space flight. The first one is that Mars' atmosphere is composed mainly of carbon dioxide, which makes it hard for conventional aircraft to function because most conventional aircraft rely on oxygen-breathing motors.
Instead, the aircraft will have to rely strictly on chemical or electrical propulsion. The second challenge is that Mars has a very low density of gas, which makes it difficult to create a lot of lift for the Entomopter. The gravity that exists on Mars is one-third that of Earth, so this is another consideration to take into account when constructing the Entomopter.
In response to one of the challenges that NASA and researchers face, Isaac said, "In order to enhance lift, the exhaust gases from power generation will be directed out through the wing's tips. This will create a jet that will give the Entomopter an upward force. They call it 'out gassing'."
NASA's Glenn Research Center is currently funding this early exploration. Up to this point Isaac has been supplied $30,000 for his early explorations on this project. However, Isaac (on behalf of UMR), and other project participants are meeting in Atlanta in January to discuss each organization's findings on the subject. If the findings are significant, then NASA will attempt to fund the next phase of the project.
"I think that this project has a very good chance of continuing into the next phase, based on research that has been done by me and others involved," Isaac said.
NASA would use this technology to explore the surface of Mars by sending Entomopters out from the Mars Lander to photograph, take samples and map the terrain.
Even though NASA is the principal sponsor, the military may have uses for this technology as well. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is pursuing similar technologies known as micro air vehicles.
"They (the military) can send flying robots into caves and other places, taking pictures and gathering other electronic information," Isaac said.
Other practical uses for this technology involve specific missions. For example, if there is a nuclear accident at a plant, an Entomopter could be sent into the building to take pictures of the contaminated areas. This would provide valuable information to experts trying to contain the spill without the hazardous conditions normally involved.
University of Missouri-Rolla
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