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Going Back To Those Faraway Places . . .
What If We Landed 10,000 Robot Insects On A Planet?
What if we dropped 10,000 electronic-mechanical bugs on a distant planet and sent them marching off in all directions for a look around? Each insect would require only a tiny amount of power and would have only one sensor, but the risk of loss would be distributed across the 10,000 robots. If we lost one -- if it broke down, ran out of power or got trapped -- the mission wouldn't be in jeopardy.
Sound like another cool idea for exploring the Solar System? Well, two mechanical engineering profesors at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, are developing just such robot bugs that someday could help us explore other planets.
Ephrahim Garcia and Michael Golfarb are using a $904,000 Pentagon contract to devise tiny mobile machines with sensors and cameras to relay information back to Earth. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-- which, by the way, developed the technology that created the Internet back around 1970 -- now has awarded the Vanderbilt professors a three-year contract. Garcia and Golfarb are building the first prototype insect in 1998.
The bugs will be small metallic creatures with four to six legs. They'll be around two inches long, about the size of a large beetle. The robot crawling insects will be made of titanium or steel and will be powered by battery.
Because battery power will be limited, the electronics and mechanics must be efficient if the bugs are to be useful. Piezoelectric ceramics technology is expected to provide maximum battery energy. A thin, ceramic-coated metal plate will be on top of the bug's skeleton. Voltage from the battery will be applied to that plate. The plate bends when electricity is supplied and snaps back to original form when the voltage stops. The motion of the plate will make the bug's legs move. That's the same technology used to make a pager vibrate.
Just attaching an ordinary battery wouldn't work because the energy would be drained by the time the robot crawled 100 yards. The novel system uses very little power, however the speed can't be controlled.
There is a problem. The ceramic plate restricts motion. The skeleton has a large stride. If the stride is only a quarter of a millimeter, the insect can't travel far. A stride of one to two millimeters would be good, while more than two would be even better. If it goes only travels fifty feet in the sand and then dies, it wouldn't be considered practical.
The crawlers should be inexpensive. One prototype will cost $100, but the mass-produced bugs should cost as little as $10, depending on the type of camera or sensor.
Learn more about robotic space missions:
NASA JPL photo
- Robots in Space
- Vanderbilt engineers build robotic bugs that can go the distance Vanderbilt University story
- Creepy: Vanderbilt engineers developing robotic bugs Vanderbilt University story
- Students labor in robotic bug laboratory Vanderbilt University story
- Animation shows how the robot bugs work Vanderbilt University (Flash)
- Vanderbilt Center for Intelligent Mechatronics
- NASA JPL Planetary Robotics Laboratory
The lab has a series of rovers for planet-surface exploration including:
- Lightweight Survivable Rover (LSR)
- Sample Return Rover (SRR)
- Field Integrated Design and Operations (FIDO) rover
- Legged Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot (LEMUR)
- DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office – Robotics
- NASA Discovery program
- NASA space science missions:
- Other interplanetary probes:
- Comet exploration missions
- Asteroid exploration missions
- Sun exploration missions
- Mercury exploration missions
- Venus exploration missions
- Moon exploration missions
- Mars exploration missions
- Jupiter exploration missions
- Saturn exploration missions
- Uranus exploration missions
- Neptune exploration missions
- Pluto exploration missions
- Pioneer exploration missions
- Voyager exploration missions
- Deep Space Network
Star: The Sun Inner Planets: Mercury Venus Earth Mars Outer Planets: Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto Other Bodies: Moons Asteroids Comets The Voyagers
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