NASA to send army of robots to Mars

17 Apr 2008

The idea of swarms of self-sufficient robots deploying on the ground and in the air on the red planet of Mars may sound like something from a science fiction novel, but it is actually a very real project NASA is considering as a paradigm for future space exploration.

With NASA’s renewed commitment to space exploration, in particular missions to Mars and the return to the Moon, there is greater emphasis being placed on both human and robotic exploration.

Limerick-man, Professor Mike Hinchey, director of the software engineering at NASA Goddard Flight Centre near Washington DC, said the US Government-backed space agency is looking into autonomic computing and the idea of autonomicity, where spacecraft and missions would be served by large numbers of small robots.

The idea is these robots would be self-sufficient and self-healing in harsh environments. They would snap into action if a spacecraft is damaged, software corrupted or a member of the swarm or constellation is lost.

“We’re using the concept of a swarm where thousands of devices would co-ordinate and work together on missions, whether it’s fixing a spacecraft or spreading out over a geographic area or asteroid belt. We’re also looking at the development of Pico-class spacecraft that would be the size of a laptop.”

NASA is looking at ways for swarms and constellations of robots to communicate by radio and laser communication. “There is often a 20-minute delay on signals from spacecraft or rovers back to mission control so if these devices can fix the problem on the spot because they have autonomic properties, it would ensure better success for a mission.”

Hinchey, who is also professor of computer science and director of the graduate programme at Loyola College in Maryland, is about to take up the role of centre director at Lero in Limerick, a software-focused Centre for Science, Engineering and Technology funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

Hinchey said another potential use of the autonomic devices would be to send them in swarms to investigate Mars. “Instead of sending just two rover machines, the idea is to send hundreds of tiny robots that would scatter over a distance. If a few get lost it won’t affect the success of the mission.”

Another concept being studied is the idea of dispatching aircraft akin to the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) used by the US military, such as the Predator, to fly over the surface of Mars. “These would collect as much information in three minutes as Rover would in months.”

Hinchey said at the heart of the concept is a growing belief at NASA that all of NASA’s future systems should be autonomic and self-configuring, self-optimising, self-healing and self-protecting.

NASA has already developed a prototype multi-agent system called LOGOS (Lights-Out Ground Operations System) that has spawned research into the creation of richer networks of autonomous and autonomic systems.

“Scientists are excited about this and are looking into the potential of sending missions of robotic agents to asteroid belts to look at how the universe began. To send humans on such missions could be disastrous as it would require large spacecraft and many years to get there. But self-healing robots could survive for months and years,” Hinchey said.

The mission to asteroid belts, entitled the ANTS (Autonomous Nano Technology Swarm) mission would see worker spacecraft take measurements of asteroids and send the data back to the leader, which would create a model of the asteroid and relay this back to Earth.

By John Kennedy