NASA is exploring the idea of sending swarms of autonomous robots to explore other worlds.
Robotic innovations by NASA scientists have greatly aided in space exploration. The Mars rover Curiosity is a recent example of what can be accomplished in lieu of sending human explorers. And NASA continues investing in robotic research because it is currently easier to send robots into space than it is to send humans.
Scientists are now working on robots much smaller than current rovers, and equipped with only a small handful of instruments, such as a webcam, GPS and WiFi. Engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida have dubbed these little bots “swarmies.”
Space.com describes these swarmies like this: “The swarmies function in a way similar to an ant colony. When one ant stumbles across a food source, it sends out a signal to the rest of the colony, and then the ants work together to cart the food back to the nest.” Engineers envision these robots eventually working on asteroids, moons, or planets, where they will “scan the soil for infinitely valuable water-ice or other resources that can be turned into rocket fuel or breathable air for astronauts.”
NASA says the four swarmies currently being tested are very basic models that resemble stripped-down radio-controlled trucks. Engineers control the bots using special software. NASA explains that, currently, “They are being programmed to work on their own to survey an area, then call the others over when they find a cache of something valuable.”
Swarmies could also be put to work here on Earth. NASA explains that these mini rovers could be used as pipeline inspectors, drilling machines and they could even aid in search-and-rescue operations.
But these robot armies probably won’t be swarming alien worlds anytime soon.
Testing is still in the preliminary stages, and NASA engineers are only driving the swarmies around the parking lots surrounding Kennedy's Launch Control Center.