Because of the high level of failures of space missions involving single landers, several groups of researchers are now looking at sending armies of cooperative robots to explore our planetary system. This approach has several key advantages, such as a better chance to successfully achieve a space mission or a reduction of launch costs. One of these groups want to send groups of robots digging into Saturn's moon Titan. Others want to send minuscule swimming robots to explore the oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa. RedNova tells us more about these future swarms of cooperative robots.
Will swarms of co-operating robots one day be exploring some of the most intriguing worlds in the solar system?
Of the 17 landers sent to investigate Mars, only 5 have survived to perform their missions. In spite of this, scientists are already looking for their next planetary targets, with Saturn's moon Titan and Jupiter's moon Europa being distinct possibilities.
So, how can the success rate of these missions can be improved?
One alternative, proposed in 1989 by Rodney Brooks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is finally coming to fruition - the idea of replacing solitary rovers with swarms of cooperative robots.
This approach has several distinct advantages. Launch costs could be reduced and soft landings achieved by delivering lighter payloads. Robustness is improved, since a critical failure on any rover is isolated from the rest.
Let's look at one project. Here is a robot to drilling Europa's icy crust before exploring its oceans (Credit:NASA).
There is another approach, promoted by Jeff Johnson of the Open University and Rodney Buckland of the University of Kent.
It involves Self Organising IMAging Robots, or soimars, small cube-shaped robots each carrying a single-pixel imaging device (such as a photodiode) and weighing as little as 10 grams. Each one is able to communicate with its neighbours and is capable of moving in water, using small propulsion screws. A swarm of these tiny robots could be deployed into a sub surface ocean on Europa to image the environment.
A transport craft containing communications and power facilities would land on Europa's ice crust and release an ice-penetrating device containing the soimars. This device would bore through the ice and release the soimars into the ocean.
The soimars then self-organise into a stack, aligning their imaging devices. By cooperatively swimming, the stack scans an area under the ice. If a single imaging device fails, the faulty soimar is simply released and the swarm reorganises to form an error free array.
Meanwhile, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is looking at cooperative robot teams to explore the surface of Mars.
An objective of this work at JPL is to deploy a robotic workforce on Mars to construct mining and refining facilities, which will provide fuel for future human missions.
With proposals to land men on Mars, and eventually more distant locations, these robotic work crews will be indispensable in both investigating the destinations, and creating outposts to support our arrival.
When will we see these teams of robots at work on Titan or Europa? Neither the RedNova, article nor this press release from the Royal Astronomical Society upon which it's based offers an answer.
Source: RedNova, March 31, 2004