Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

Robotic dogs and fish could help explore deeper into other worlds

Bob McDonald's blog: Robotic animals could boldly go where wheeled rovers can't

Bob McDonald's blog: Robotic animals could boldly go where wheeled rovers can't

A school of fish-inspired robots like this can coordinate their movements without central control. (Harvard School of Engineering Self-organizing Systems Research Group)

Mechanical fish that school together and robotic dogs that can climb hills could become better explorers of other worlds than the current generation of planetary rovers. 

Missions that will be landing on Mars in February, such as NASA's Perseverance and China's Tianwen -1 will use wheeled rovers to explore the Martian landscape. Wheels are efficient but can be limited in the terrain they can drive over, so Mars missions so far have been restricted to safe, relatively smooth regions.

New developments in robotics involving machines that move like animals could enable the exploration of more difficult terrain, including underground and underwater environments. Animals, after all, have had millions of years to adapt to challenging environments on Earth, so copying their techniques for locomotion could be an effective way to explore other worlds.

NASA's Perseverance rover will arrive on Mars in February 2021. (NASA/JPL)

You may have seen videos of Boston Dynamics' robots. Their four-legged robot called Spot looks and moves like a headless dog. Equipped with cameras and other sensors, Spot can walk over rough terrain, climb hills and go up and down stairs while avoiding obstacles. It can even roll over and right itself if it should happen to fall.

Engineers are working with NASA on a version of Spot that could become a spelunker, autonomously exploring underground caves and caverns. On Mars there is a greater chance of finding life in these environments, where it would be sheltered from the intense UV radiation on the surface. 

These robot dogs might even be faithful assistants to human Mars explorers. Caves are risky enough to explore on Earth, let alone on another planet, so robotic cavers could venture into dangerous places where humans cannot or should not go.

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been working with Boston Dynamics' dog-shaped robot named Spot to develop systems for robotic exploration. (NASA/JPL/Caltech)

In a separate effort, researchers at Harvard have developed robotic fish that swim in schools without external control. Each fish has a set of camera eyes that can see in the three-dimensional space of open water, and LED lights mounted on their bodies so they can see each other. 

When placed as a group in water, the robots swarm in circles without running into each other the way fish in the ocean form themselves into swirling fish balls with no leader. They can also be taught to find a target, where one of them randomly comes upon it then flashes its lights attracting the others to join in.

One might imagine using a school of miniaturized robotic fish to explore some of the ice-covered moons in the solar system that are known to harbour oceans, such as Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus. Dropping a swarm of robot fish through a hole drilled in the ice would enable them to explore the alien marine environment on their own. Of course, there is also the possibility they could be mistaken for bait, which would be even more interesting!

Sending humans to other worlds is extremely expensive, mainly because people need to be kept warm, well-fed and happy the whole time, which takes a lot of resources. Robots have been exploring space longer than humans and have been to every planet in the solar system, and they do it at a fraction of the cost.

As robots become more sophisticated, talented and behave more like animals, it is far cheaper to send them out like pets, allow them to sniff around on their own, and see what they dig up.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.