Imagine a group of mobile phone-sized robots swimming through the water beneath the thick icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s moon Enceladus, looking for signs of alien life. That’s the view of Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The US space agency recently awarded Schaler $600,000 for its Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) concept as part of its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
The funding is for a study into the feasibility of sending swarms of miniature swimming robots (known as independent micro-swimmers) to explore oceans beneath the icy shells of our solar system’s many “ocean worlds”. “My idea is, where can we take miniaturized robotics and apply them in interesting new ways to explore our solar system?” said Schaler. “With a swarm of small swimming robots, we can explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collect data in the same area.”
What the concept looks like
The early-stage SWIM concept, according to NASA, envisions wedge-shaped robots, each about 5 inches (12 centimeters) long and about 3 to 5 cubic inches (60 to 75 cubic centimeters) in volume. About four dozen of them would fit into a 4-inch-long (10 centimeters long) section of a cryobot 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter, which takes up about 15% of the scientific cargo volume. For those who don’t know, a cryobot is a robot that can penetrate water and ice. It is a robotic device used for the exploration of ice masses or areas trapped under ice, such as polar regions on Earth.
As ambitious as the SWIM concept is, it would aim to reduce risks while improving science at the same time. The cryobot would be connected via a communications cable to the surface-based lander, which would in turn be the point of contact with mission controllers on Earth. That connected approach, along with the limited space to accommodate a large propulsion system, means the cryobot probably won’t get much further than the point where ice meets the ocean.
‘Behave’ like fish
The report adds that these SWIM robots could “flake” together in a behavior inspired by fish or birds, reducing errors in data due to their overlapping measurements.
Each robot would have its own propulsion system, on-board computer and ultrasonic communication system, along with simple sensors for temperature, salinity, acidity and pressure. Chemical sensors to check for biomarkers – signs of life – will be part of Schaler’s Phase II study.