Thousands of probes, powered by fuel cells, could cover a vast area now beyond the reach of today's rovers, including exploring remote and rocky terrain that large rovers cannot navigate.
"They would start to hop, bounce and roll and distribute themselves across the surface of the planet, exploring as they go, taking scientific data samples," said Steven Dubowsky, the MIT professor of mechanical engineering who is leading the research team.
Dubowsky's team plans to test prototypes on Earth this fall and estimates that a trip to Mars is about 10 years away. He is now working with Penelope Boston, director of the cave research program at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, to create probes that can handle the rough terrain of Mars.
Scientists believe that lava tubes commonly seen on Mars are a promising location to search for signs of water. Lava tubes are tunnels left behind by underground lava flows. Signs of these tubes, which are also present in many locations on Earth, can be seen above ground.
The tubes could be entered through holes that formed on the Mars surface where sections of the tubes have collapsed, but these formations are too treacherous for today's rovers to explore. However, tiny bouncing probes could make their way inside the caves.
Mars also features canyons that could have once had rivers flowing through them. The canyons, too, are inaccessible to rovers, but small probes might be able to make their way down the canyon faces.
One of the major advantages of the mini probes is that losing a few out of hundreds or thousands of probes sent into a treacherous area would not derail the overall mission, Dubowsky said. "You would certainly be willing to sacrifice some of these 1,000 balls" to gather information from remote areas, he said.
Each probe would weigh about 100 grams (4 ounces) and would carry its own tiny fuel cell. "You could hop for a long, long time on a few grams of fuel," Dubowsky said.
Artificial muscles inside the probes could make them hop an average of six times per hour, with a maximum rate of 60 hops per hour. The devices would travel about 1.5 meters per hop; they can also bounce or roll. In 30 days, a swarm of probes could cover 50 square miles, according to Dubowsky.
Each probe would carry different types of sensors, including cameras and environmental sensors. The probes are made of durable and lightweight plastic that could withstand the rigors of Mars travel and the extreme cold. Their fuel cells will provide enough heat to keep their electronics and sensors operable.
One thousand of the probes would have the same volume and weight as the Spirit rover. "For the weight and size of Spirit you could certainly send more than 1,000 of these sensors up there, which would have much greater capability," Dubowsky said.
The probes would be able to communicate with nearby probes through a local area network (LAN). Data would be sent to a base station that would transmit information back to Earth.
Other possible applications for the small robots include search and rescue missions in collapsed buildings or other dangerous sites, and counter-terrorist activities (searching for terrorists in caves).
Last year, the researchers got funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC). The NIAC grant is meant to help move the project from the concept stage to the prototype stage.
Other collaborators on the project include Jean-Sebastien Plante, a postdoctoral researcher in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Fritz Prinz and Mark Cutkowsky of Stanford University.
Elizabeth A. Thomson | MIT News Office
APEX takes a glimpse into the heart of darkness
25.05.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie
First chip-scale broadband optical system that can sense molecules in the mid-IR
24.05.2018 | Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science
The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.
Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...
A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.
The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...
At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.
At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...
There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?
At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
25.05.2018 | Event News
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Event News
25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering
25.05.2018 | Life Sciences