NASA Marsbee flying robotic insects may explore Mars in the future

NASA recently funded a new potential future way to explore the Red Planet: Marsbee, an insect-like flying robot that could operate in swarms with a rover serving as a base station. Marsbees are described as about the size of a bumblebee with wings like you'd find on a cicada; they don't need much energy and can be recharged from a rover that doubles as a communication center.

The proposed exploration technology was detailed on NASA's website late last week by University of Alabama, Huntsville's Chang-Kwon Kang, who says that Marsbee is part of a multidisciplinary program involving a Japanese team, as well. The project is in its early stage, currently undergoing a Phase 1 evaluation in which the researchers figure out the wing design, "insect" weight, and motion to enable flight in Mars' atmosphere.

According to NASA, the design sizes mentioned above are believed to be adequate for getting enough lift to hover on Mars. Energy harvesting mechanisms would help reduce overall energy needs, while recharging could be performed via the Mars rover, which would be equipped with solar power hardware. The concept doesn't involve rotary wings, but rather ones that include a torsional spring for temporary energy storage.

One advantage to the Marsbee is its small size — it would be much easier to transport the small swarm to Mars versus other more traditional (and larger) aerial vehicles. In addition, losing one Marsbee wouldn't be catastrophic to the mission because multiple others would remain and continue gathering data.

Marsbees could be equipped with sensors to gather data as they operate in the Mars atmosphere, as well as wireless technology to transmit information back to a companion rover. The concept is one of more than two dozen selected by NASA to receive funding for a Phase 1 evaluation. Once Phase 1 is complete, the team can apply to get more funding for Phase 2, but NASA will make the final decision.