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

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.

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