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Robotic life on Mars?

written by Brian Rudo on August 20, 2000 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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A gecko.
A gecko.
Credit: Unknown
Today Martian rovers are extremely limited in their capacity to move around and explore their environment to gather data on the Martian surface. This may be about to change. Recently studies into the nature of several different species of animals have yielded astonishing results for the science of the robotics. In research done by Robert Full of the University of California at Berkeley, and teams at Stanford University, Lewis and Clark College, and iRobot in Massachusetts, researchers have found that the gecko, for instance, relies on hairs on the soles of its feet--hairs which contain billions of microscopic tips. The geckos then molecularly bond to the surface that they are walking on, which gives a gecko's foot the ability to hold up tens of pounds. This principle, if applied to a Martian rover, would give the rover the ability to move with less energy expenditure and with much more speed. According to Robert Full, "The robots' performance will be equal to or better than that of an animal running around. We are on the verge of a revolution of something we can't imagine."

Also, Mark Tilden of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has begun research into non-digital robots based on the behavior of animals. By using an analog system, the robot can imitate the natural instinct of a creature and respond in almost a random manner, easily allowing these robots to rapidly overcome any obstacle. "As soon as a device has to interact with complex worlds-like a forest, or a field, or a human-then digital hits the complexity barrier, where a small behavioral improvement can cost thousands of man-hours," Tilden says. "...Nature uses analog answers, but we can't build those. I believe there's another way, ideal for robots themselves. That's why I'm exploring analog devices to see if there might be other solutions to making a machine think it's alive."

If both these ideas were combined, it could theoretically produce a new generation of Martian rovers, rovers that are capable of doing much, much more for the exploration of Mars.

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