NASA Swarmies Could Turn Mars Surveying Into A Group Effort


If you’ve enjoyed following the journeys of NASA’s unmanned rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity across Mars, collecting samples, taking selfies, and trying not to get stuck, you’re in for a lot more fun when NASA eventually sends its swarmies up to the red planet. Instead of a relying on a single large rover that has to do everything on its own, the swarmies would be able to communicate with each other and cooperate on pre-assigned tasks with less oversight from people back on earth, reports Kelly Dickerson for

Swarmies look for materials like ants look for food

The strategy, similar to how an ant colony finds food, is for each rover to go off on its own and then send a message to the others when it finds something interesting so that it can get help from the rest. Although testing is still in the early stages, the rovers are already showing promise with just GPS, webcams, WIFI antennae, and programmed instructions to survey an area and look for certain materials (water, for example) scattered around the Kennedy’s Launch Control Center parking lot (ok, very early stages). According to lead engineer Cheryle Mako, the project is progressing through the early data collection and investigation phases faster than had been expected.

Swarmies don’t have a single point of failure like current Mars rovers

One of the biggest advantages of switching over to teams of rovers is that the mission doesn’t end just because one of them crashes or malfunctions. Researchers may have to scale back their goals if the team loses too many rovers, but that’s still better than having a single point of failure.

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“For a while people were interested in putting as much smarts and capability as they could on their one robot,” said engineer Kurt Leucht who is also working on the project. “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.”

In addition to extraplanetary surveying missions, with some modifications teams of swarmies could be deployed here on earth for search and rescue missions either to complement or substitute human search efforts in dangerous areas. They could also be used by industry to inspect pipelines, and as the swarmies become more sophisticated more applications are sure to crop up.

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