Robots to Build Martian Colonies. New technology could lead to a colonization program.


by Chris Laquinta | Submitted Saturday Nov 01, 2008 [04:29 AM]


When was the last time you stepped on an ant? Last week? Yesterday? Every chance you get? Yes, we do tend to take things much smaller than ourselves for granted, but a new generation of ant-sized robotics may revolutionize the future of outer-space colonization, if they don't wipe us out on Judgement Day first.

Marc Szymanski, a robotics researcher at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany, is part of a team of European researchers and scientists that is working on developing miniature autonomous robots that can work together to accomplish different tasks in many of the same ways that colonies of termites, ants or bees can work together to gather food, build nests, etc.

The most likely candidate as our first stop on the cosmic edition of "Extreme Home Makeover"? Mars. New discoveries of earth-like soil and water on Mars has sent the science community into frenzy over the concept that the Red Planet may very well be the first in line to receive their own Starbucks. But, humans won't be the one's to touch down on the surface, but rather swarms of tiny robots.

But why small robots instead of Transformer sized super machines? "Small robots that are able to work together could explore the planet. We now know there is water and dust so all they would need is some sort of glue to start building structures, such as homes for human scientists," says Szymanski. "Robot swarms are particularly useful in situations where you need high redundancy. If one robot malfunctions or is damaged it does not cause the mission to fail because another robot simply steps in to fill its place."

Code-named the I-SWARM project, the crew has already created a small army of 100 centimeter-scale robots and is currently aiming to progress into much larger groups of ant-sized micro-bots. One completed, these first generation "Wall-E" type machines will be put to work here on Earth and used in a seemingly endless amount of applications that include working in deep-water environments, repairing machinery from the inside out, cleaning up pollution and even providing medical treatments inside human bodies.

The robots communicate through infrared and are programmed to behave like their real life ant-counterparts, such as using a collective perception to work as a group to accomplish goals, transmit project details, and assist in physical duties.

The roadblocks on the path to planetary colonization however, are many. The I-SWARM robots get their power from a tiny solar cell, which has its limitations. "Power is a big issue. The more complex the task, the more energy is required. A robot that needs to lift something [uses] powerful motors and these need lots of energy," says Szymanski.

Controlling the mini-bots, each equipped with its own onboard processor, is another major hurdle. The processors can store just eight kilobytes of memory and two kilobytes of RAM, which is around a million times less than your average PC. So……does that mean no built in MP3 player?

Still, despite the technological setbacks, the team is confident that in the very near future they will be able to mass-produce the I-SWARM robots, which will make them fairly cheap to manufacture.

So maybe it's time to start treating the real life ants with a little more respect, as it would appear that the future of our reach into space depends heavily on these insect-like mini-Terminators, but if one of them ever comes up to us and says "Come with me if you want to live", we're reaching for the magnifying glass.

Would you move to the Red Planet? Share your comments below with the rest of the potential interplanetary immigrants.

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Tags:swarm+robotics  mars+rover  martian  colonies  exploration 

(http://gear.ign.com/articles/925/925400p1.html)
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