NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has granted $600,000 of extra funding towards an idea that would see swarms of tiny swimming robots sent to investigate oceans on moons or other planets throughout the solar system.
A system like that of distributed tiny robots could broaden the reach of a mission sent to explore oceans under the icy surfaces of some of our solar system’s moons like Saturn’s Enceladus or Jupiter’s Europa. The concept, called “Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers,” or SWIM, is the idea of Ethan Schaler, a robotics mechanical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“My idea is, where can we take miniaturized robotics and apply them in interesting new ways for exploring our solar system?” Schaler said in the statement. “With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a much larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area.”
A swarm of sensor-laden robots would be capable of overlapping their measurements, thereby reducing potential errors. More data points imply a remarkable ability to inspect gradients or variances in the swimmers’ environment.
The micro-swimmers idea remains hypothetical and has not been included in any specific NASA mission. However, NASA is presently working towards a 2024 liftoff for its Europa Clipper mission which will orbit Europa dozens of times to study the moon. It’s possible that the data collected from Europa Clipper could instruct a future mission that includes tiny SWIM robots to ultimately dive into the subsurface oceans under the moon’s icy surface.