Insect-like robots may one day swarm over the surface of Mars, helping scientists better study the planet, says Dr. K.M. Isaac, a University of Missouri-Rolla professor of aerospace engineering, who is helping to develop this new breed of robots.
Isaac 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 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.
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.
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