Swarms of autonomous insect robots could prove key to future planetary exploration

Computer scientist Nadine Kaercher stands next to the robot ants 'BionicANTs' at the stand of the company Festo at Hannover trade fair in Hannover, Germany, 12 April 2015. The industrial trade fair runs from 13 April until 17 April 2015. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Computer scientist Nadine Kaercher stands next to the robot ants 'BionicANTs' at the stand of the company Festo at Hannover trade fair in Hannover, Germany, 12 April 2015. The industrial trade fair runs from 13 April until 17 April 2015. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Darrell Etherington

While we're preparing to launch a six-wheeled robotic rover roughly the size of a car to explore Mars, future planetary exploration and science missions could employ much smaller hardware -- including, potentially, swarms of robots the size of insects designed to act in concert with one another autonomously.

Swarming insect-like robots are being developed by a number of different institutions and companies, but a researcher at California State University Northridge recently received a sizable Department of Defense grant specially to fund the development of autonomous robot swarms for extraterrestrial applications -- as well as for use right here on Earth in mining, industrial and search and rescue efforts.

The grant, for $539,000, was awarded to CSUN mechanical engineering professor Nhut Ho, who also directs the NASA Autonomous Research Center for STEAMH (which focuses on collaborative research efforts between Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts, Mathematics and Humanities academics, hence the acronym). The goal of the research is to build robotic swarms that can essentially be dropped into unknown and hostile environments, and then figure out how to complete specific tasks they're given without essentially any additional input.

Ultimately, such a swarm would be able to perform complex problem solving to deal with challenges, including organizing themselves into different-sized groups to handle different aspects of the task at hand, as well as dealing with setbacks, including losing individual members of the swarm through redundancy and repurposing.

One way the system will be tested is through use with a collaborating team from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) that seeks to find the best solutions for autonomously navigating and mapping underground environments.

As for why this approach is even being considered, there are a lot of potential benefits of using a swarm of small rovers versus a single, large one. At a very basic level, there's built-in redundancy -- if a rover like NASA's Perseverance encounters a fatal error, the mission is essentially done, while a swarm losing individual members shouldn't end the entire mission. Also, a swarm can self-assemble into individual subunits and cover more ground more quickly, accomplishing a number of goals in parallel where a larger rover might have to handle tasks in sequence.

CSUN is working on its swarm project with partners, including JPL, as mentioned, as well as Boston Dynamics, Intel, Clearpath Robotics, Telerob, Veoldyne and Silvus Technologies. It could be a while before any insect bots actually set "foot" on the red planet, but this is definitely a strong sign of interest and support from large, deep-pocketed public funding sources.

More From

  • California reportedly launches antitrust investigation into Google

    According to a report in Politico, California has become the 49th state to launch an antitrust investigation into Google. California and Alabama were the only states that did not participate in an antitrust investigation by 48 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, that began in September and is focused on Google’s dominance in online advertising and search. It is still unclear what aspects of Google’s business the reported California investigation will focus on.

  • U.S. government may finalize ban on federal contractors using equipment from Huawei this week

    The Trump administration is set to finalize regulations this week that ban the United States government from working with contractors who use technology from five Chinese companies: Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera Communications, according to a Reuters report. The ban was first introduced as a provision in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that prevents government agencies from signing contracts with companies that use equipment, services and systems from Huawei, ZTE, Hytera, Hikvision and Dahua, or any of their subsidiaries and affiliates, citing national security concerns.

  • Ban or no ban, Facebook wins in U.S. threats against TikTok

    On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. is "looking at" banning Chinese social media apps, including the Chinese-owned company TikTok, comparing it to other Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE that have been deemed national security threats by the current administration. "With respect to Chinese apps on people's cell phones, I can assure you that the United States will get this one right, too," Pompeo said. The fear is the app could be used to surveil or influence Americans, or else that TikTok parent ByteDance could be made to provide the Chinese government with TikTok's data on its U.S.-based users -- of which there are at least 165 million.

  • Amazon will pay $135,000 to settle alleged US sanction violations

    In a statement issued this week, the U.S. Treasury Department notes that Amazon has agreed to pay $134,523 to settle potential liability over alleged sanctions violations. The charges specifically pertain to goods and services sent to people located in Crimea, Iran and Syria, which are covered by Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions, between November 2011 and October 2018. The Treasury Department also states that the retail giant failed to report “several hundred" transactions in a timely manner.