An Addition to My Mars Rover

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In a previous blog post, I designed a robot that I believe could replace the current series of Mars rovers created by NASA. This robot would incorporate many biomechanical aspects from nature, among them:

  • Walking/Running: Inspired by the cockroach and its ability to navigate very rough terrain without sacrificing speed.
  • Digging: Inspired by the specialized forelimbs of the mole cricket which allow it to burrow.
  • Jumping: Inspired by the powerful hind legs of the grasshopper, which allow it to manipulate potential energy and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Together, these three natural implements would allow my mars rover to more easily and efficiently navigate the foreign terrain of Mars and possibly other planets in the future.

But why stop there? This week we learned about insects and biological sensors. By adding sensors to my robot, I feel it could be made even more efficient and effective. These are the ideas I have:

Vision: The first sensor I would add would be based on the insect eye. Insect eyes consist of hundreds of individual units known as ommatidia. Each ommatidium is able to focus on a particular image and then send that info to the brain to form one whole, coherent image. What this means is the insect eye is able to focus on objects both near and far at the same time and at the same resolution. Furthermore, the compound eye also possesses a 180o viewing angle. These characteristics would make navigation that much more efficient.  I would like to add something similar to the insect-eye camera currently being developed by our very own John Rogers (2):

 

Proprioceptive Sensors: Proprioception is the ability to sense the relative position of a body part and its relation to gravity. Insects can do so in the following ways:

  • Hair beds – Small hairs called setae are located where two appendages of an insect meet. When the setae touch the cuticle due to bending of an appendage, a nerve impulse is sent and information regarding bodily position is transmitted.
  • Stretch receptors. – These are associated with muscles and are sensitive to such things as gut distension, egg maturation, and muscle fiber stretching. They basically prevent the insect from exploding in many cases.
  • Campaniform sensillum

In my opinion, something similar to the setae of insects would be best suited to my Mars rover. It obviously is very important that the robot know its leg position relative to the terrain, so perhaps it would be possible to develop some sort of mechanism mimicking setae that alert the robot to its position periodically.

Echolocation – By bouncing soundwaves off walls and other objects, bats are able to “see” where they’re going. This could prove useful if implemented in my robot.

As far as actually implementing these sensors into a robot, we have quite a ways to go. For the most part we have still been unable to replicate completely many of the structures found in insects. Once we have a better understanding of the mechanisms behind insect sensor modalities we should be able to develop these sensors into a reality.

Sources:

(1) Mars Rover, Brandon Nelson https://learn.illinois.edu/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=168826

(2) Insect Eye Digital Camera Sees What You Just Did http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/02/insect-eye-digital-camera-sees-what-you-just-did/

(3) Mechanical Stimulus https://learn.illinois.edu/mod/lesson/view.php?id=195373&pageid=53404

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Mars Rovers of the Future?

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My “Mars Rover.” Hey, I’m no artist…

Since conquering the moon in the early 70’s, we’ve since set our sights further out into the universe. Our primary focus in the last couple decades has been exploring Mars and the potential for discovering water. To aid in our research, scientist have created many robots that allow us to remotely collect samples and learn about the red planet without sending actual human beings. Scientists could (and have) taken a page from the biomechanics of nature in creating this robots.

So how exactly can we mimic nature in order to further our knowledge of Mars (and potentially other planets in the future)? I propose a robot incorporating the various aspects of biomechanics we have studied in this week’s module: primarily digging, walking, jumping, and possibly flying.

As of this posting, NASA has utilized four Mars rovers in their endeavors: Sojourner (inactive), Opportunity, Spirit (inactive), and Curiosity. (1) These high-tech robots must successfully navigate the rocky, foreign terrain of Mars. This means keeping the rover well-balanced and generally allowing it to navigate far and wide without impediments. This, I believe, is where biomechanics come into play. By incorporating some of the unique ways insects move, maybe we could in the future create a more efficient Mars Rover. Let’s break it down according to some of the characteristics I believe are most crucial:

Walking/Running: As learned in this week’s lesson on biomechanics and robotics, insects are statically stable thanks to their six legs which provide a sort of stability along with a mechanism for movement. One of the insects discussed was the cockroach, which is able to scurry very quickly and stably and, as seen in a Module 1 during Robert Full’s TED talk, is able to traverse rough terrain without losing a step. Also inspired by cockroach movement is the robot RHex, which is capable of navigating very rough terrain and has been suggested for use on Mars missions as well. Attempting to implement these mechanics into future rovers is critical.

Digging: Another critical addition in my opinion, is an insect like ability to burrow and dig. Insects such as the mole cricket have specially adapted limbs for this. This allows us to take soil samples and further our quest to discover water and prove that life once existed on the red marble. While very little is currently understood about the mechanics behind this, I believe it is well worth the time and effort to research and implement this in the future.

 

                                                                          

Jumping: Another wonder of biomechanics I could see proving useful in this robot would be the ability to jump akin to the way a grasshopper does so. By storing up energy and then releasing it via muscular contractions in its powerful hindlegs, grasshoppers are able to jump great distances. The ability of a mars rover to jump over rougher terrain that might not be as easily walked across could prove invaluable.


So, is this idea of mine reasonable whatsoever? I think so. Implementing these aspects of insect biomechanics seems like a worthy pursuit. However, there could be some potential drawbacks. As mentioned by another student in IB 411, cost could be an issue. Furthermore, it could take quite some time to develop adequate machinery to replicate the biomechanics seen in a previous blog post. This in itself could cost a lot of money. At least for the time being, it seems NASA might be better off sticking with their current tried and true version of Mars rovers.

Sources:

(1) Mars Rover http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_rover

(2) http://mars.nasa.gov/msl/mission/rover/

(3) http://marsrover.nasa.gov/mission/tl_surface_nav.html

(4) IB 411 Course Blackboard Site, M. Alleyne