Robot Update 013
Stephen Dubowsky, an engineer for MIT's field and space robotics laboratory is leading the project that will bring the microbots to life. The concept behind the little spherical exploration machines is a time honored one. Many hands make for light work. Each microbot will weigh less than 100 grams, or right around 3.5 ounces. They'll be baseball sized, constructed of light weight but very strong composite materials. Pound for pound, for the cost and effort of delivering one spirit or opportunity style rover to mars, you could instead send more than 1000 microbots. In it's life time, a single colony of 1000 of the little guys could explore more than 50 square kilometers of martian surface. That's an order of magnitude more area than any current ground based rover could cover.
Although the microbots design is simple, there is some pretty sophisticated technology at work under their tiny transparent hoods. microbots will get their power from miniature fuel cell technology. Conventinaly, something like this would run off the same sort of Lithium Ion battery that powers my laptop. But because of the microbots unique use of energy for motion, a fuel cell is ideal. Speaking of motion, that's one of the microbots coolest qualities. They will use artificial muscles called dielectric elastomer actuators. These alloys contract or expand in the presence of electricity. Meaning that a microbot will generate force in the same way we do, by flexing its muscles. The actuators will work to both change the orientation of the small robotic sphere as well as powering a mechanical "foot" concealed within it. Microbots will move by rolling, bouncing and hoping from place to place. MIT engineers estimate that any given microbot will be capable of making meter high jumps on a planet with mars like gravity.
Suites of spectrometers, cameras, and other measuring devices will be nested in the heart of a microbot explorer. And although each robot on it's own wont have much by way of memory, communications range, or processing power, together they will accomplish feats no rover can. For instance, to explore areas where long range communication back to the mother ship is impossible, a colony of microbots could link up like a string of pearls or trail of bread crumbs. Each one acting like a WiFi signal repeater, one robot could be talking to NASA from the open air of mars, while one member of the colony is deep under the surface recording and exploring. Also it would now be conceivable to sacrifice a microbot, or ten, or a hundred to explore interesting features that would be inescapable. Such as martian lava tubes or deep craters, where water might be abundant. After a handful of microbots took a one way trip down a lava tube and sent back their finding, the rest of the collective could go on exploring, losing very little of their effectiveness.
There are plenty of terrestrial uses for microbots as well. They could be deployed in disaster areas to search for survivors, sweep hot zones for IEDs, even be sent out to discover portions of our own planet we have yet to fully explore. The MIT team will be testing the first colony of microbots this fall. There is quite a future for hordes of well designed collectively intelligent highly mobile robot colonies. Perhaps they will be the harbingers of human landers and astronaut boots as we make our way across the solar system. Eventually, to explore new worlds, we'll just have to follow the bouncing ball. [Via Robots.net]