A small band of NASA engineers and interns is about to begin testing a group of robots and related software that will show whether it’s possible for autonomous machines to scurry about an alien world such as the moon searching for and gathering resources just as an ant colony does.
Building on the research conducted at the University of New Mexico, the engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida have been developing programs that tell small, wheeled robots to go out in different directions and randomly search an area for a particular material.
For these tests that are meant only to prove the software works and the concept is worthwhile, the robots are not searching for anything more than barcoded pieces of paper. In the future though, robots working around an asteroid or on the moon or Mars would be equipped to scan the soil for infinitely valuable water-ice or other resources that can be turned into rocket fuel or breathable air for astronauts.
For now, the testing is limited to parking lots around Kennedy’s Launch Control Center using four homemade robots called “swarmies” that resemble stripped-down radio-controlled trucks. There are four of them, each with a webcam, WiFi antenna and GPS device. They are being programmed to work on their own to survey an area, then call the others over when they find a cache of something valuable. It’s identical to the way an ant colony gathers around a food source to divide up the task of collecting the food and taking it back to the nest.
“We’re entering the phase where we do a ton of trial runs and collect the data and that’s well ahead of schedule,” said Cheryle Mako, an engineer at Kennedy who is leading the project. “From an investigation perspective, we are spot-on and have made great strides.”
Kurt Leucht, a Kennedy engineer working on the project, considers it possible that future missions could use this concept in a scaled-up manner to handle any number of robots a mission wants to send into space.
“Assuming this pays off, we know somebody’s going to take this and extend it and go beyond the four or five rovers we have here,” Leucht said. “So as we design this and work it through, we’re mindful about things like minimizing bandwidth. I’m sure there will be a team whether it’s us or somebody else who will take this and advance it and scale it up.”