Robots resembling Dragonflies may be winging their way around Mars by the end of the decade. Seriously. With funding from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, engineers Rob Michelson of Georgia Tech and Tony Colozza of Ohio Aerospace Institute are leading a project to build Entomopters–robots that would be launched from a Martian land rover, fly hundreds of yards over treacherous terrain, touch down to take samples, then return to the rover to refuel and upload data.
All of which would be fairly simple but for the unique challenges presented by Mars’ ultrathin atmosphere, equivalent to Earth’s at about 100,000 feet. A conventional aircraft would need to travel at speeds greater than 250 mph merely to stay aloft, making it nearly useless for scientific research (imagine trying to take a soil sample). But the Entomopter’s design is based on recent discoveries in insect flight. When an insect-or an Entomopter-wing sweeps through the air, it creates a tiny, low-pressure vortex above the wing’s leading edge, which gives it extra lift.
Of course, designing the wings is only half the challenge. The other half is powering them, for which the engineers are developing a “reciprocating chemical muscle,” or RCM, expressly for Mars’ virtually oxygen-free atmosphere. The RCM consists of two parallel rods that push in opposite directions-hence, “reciprocating”-and contains a chemical propellant and a catalyst (Michelson won’t say what they are) which, when combined, produce a high-pressure gas that drives pistons connected to the wings. Researchers will also need to perfect control systems that will keep the Entomopter upright and pointed in the right direction, but Michelson and company are undaunted, as they have the field pretty much to themselves. “To my knowledge,” says Michelson,”we’re the only flapping-wing vehicle for Mars out there.”