The so-called Marsbees are among 25 ideas chosen to receive a 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) award, which provides recipients with funding to develop their early-stage technology for space exploration.
"We are very excited about this opportunity," said Dr Chang-kwon Kang, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). "Flying on Mars is challenging because of the ultra-low density in the Martian atmosphere. Our preliminary work shows that bioinspired aerodynamic mechanisms can help in generating sufficient lift to fly on Mars."
At the centre of Kang’s proposal is the Marsbee, a robotic bumble-bee-sized flapping-wing platform whose large cicada-like wings have the ability to generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere. Integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices, the flyers would work in a swarm, with a mobile base serving as their recharging station and a main communication centre.
Ultimately, the hope is that the Marsbees will be able to provide point measurements of the pressure, temperature, or chemical composition of the planet.
"They could also aid in collaborative terrain mapping," said Dr Brian Landrum, an associate professor and the associate chair of UAH’s Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. "And, of course, their capabilities would expand as miniaturised sensor technologies and more efficient batteries become available."
According to Kang, the Phase I award of up to $125,000 in funding over nine months will be used to determine the wing design, motion, and weight that can hover with optimal power in Mars’ atmospheric conditions. It will also be used to assess the hummingbird micro-air vehicle – one of only a few robotic flappers in the world that can fly on Earth – in Mars conditions.
UAH will develop the concept with researchers from George Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science and the Tokyo University of Science.
"Our UAH colleagues will numerically model, analyse, and optimise a flapping flyer for Martian atmospheric conditions, while our Japanese colleagues will develop and test a micro-flapping robot that is uniquely designed and constructed for the low-density atmosphere on Mars," said Kang.
If the team goes through to Phase II award, the goal will be to build on this research by addressing the manoeuvrability, wind gust rejection, take-off/landing, power implications, remote sensing, and mission optimisation of the Marsbees.
In the interim, Kang said the team will focus on the initial task of proving the feasibility of the Marsbee concept.
"One of our main goals for the first phase is to experimentally demonstrate that these Marsbees can lift off their own weight in Martian density conditions in the vacuum chamber of UAH’s Propulsion Research Center," he said. "Our long-term overarching goal is to develop swarms of Marsbees that can help with the human exploration on Mars."