NASA engineers in the parking lots of Kennedy’s Launch Control Center are looking more and more like a bunch of kids on Christmas day who have just unwrapped a new remote-controlled truck.
NASA: Safety in numbers
However, these engineers aren’t playing, per se, but rather exploring the idea of stripped down robots that could be used for the exploration of asteroids, moons, and planets. They are calling the robots (autonomous remote controlled vehicles) “swarmies” as they look to quantity over quality. While the Mars rover Curiosity has largely been viewed as a success, if it were to malfunction, or become stuck, end of mission. The “swarmies” idea is to have “bare bones” robots equipped with a webcam, Wi-Fi antenna, and GPS system for navigation and have them work as part of a collective.
The “swarmies” could be programmed to head off in different directions in search of, say, ice-water on Mars. That ice water could be used for oxygen or rocket fuel in theory. Once found the discovering robot could call its friends over to have a look.
“For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot,” Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the project, said in a statement. “Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task. One of them can roll over and die and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.”
While Tesla’s Elon Musk believes that humans on Mars in ten years is possible, many believe its possible that he’s had one too many bong hits on days that he says things like this.
NASA: Jobs for “Swarmies” on Earth
The engineers involve don’t believe that their “swarmies” could only function on Mars and have real on-Earth applications such as search and rescue in the case of natural disasters or building collapses. They might also be ideal as pipeline inspectors.
“This would give you something smaller and cheaper that could always be running up and down the length of the pipeline so you would always know the health of your pipelines,” Cheryle Mako, a NASA engineer who is leading the project, said in a statement. “If we had small swarming robots that had a couple sensors and knew what they were looking for, you could send them out to a leak site and find which area was at greatest risk.”