Robots Could Be The Answer To Space Research

BBC Online News / Sci-Tech

December 11, 1997


Individuals may soon be able to conduct their own space
research for as little as $2,000 (1,250)

American scientists have developed miniature, solar-powered
robots to revolutionise space exploration.

Space research is expensive and difficult. Even if you can
afford to buy and launch a satellite, once it is up there it
can easily break down. But not for much longer.

Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United
States have developed tiny robots, weighing just a few
grammes, a fraction of the weight of a normal satellite.

But more important than their size is their low cost - less
than $2,000 (1,250) each.

Mark Tilden, one of the robots' creators, says they will
make space research cheap enough for individuals to have a
go.

He says: "The real advantage of this sort of technology will
be to make available space research not just to big
organisations like NASA and major government labs around the
world, but to small universities and even individuals who
have an interest in doing something in near space."

The robots are not only small and cheap, but they work in a
revolutionary way that should make them more reliable once
they are up in space.

Their energy source will not run out because they are solar
powered.

They should not break down because they have very few
components and do not even need computers to run them.

Mr Tilden, an expert on biomorphic robotics, sees his
devices less like conventional robots and more like a kind
of animal.

"The particular robotics that I work on does not involve
computers. The device comes to life, takes what energy it
can from the environment and then uses that energy to
survive.

"So you get something more similar to biological devices
than say the computer that's on your desk.

"We're developing robots which fight for survival. And then
we domesticate this wild robot into doing a task for us."

The robots have been tried and tested in simulated space
conditions here on Earth.

Now the team are keen to test them out into space. Mr Tilden
is very determined and will try anything to persuade someone
to take the robots into orbit.

He even tried dating an astronaut to persuade her to take a
robot with her on a mission. He failed, but he is still
optimistic he will find a way soon.

"We've got other options, if we can just get someone who can
spare us a couple of kilogrammes on a launch vehicle, we can
try and get these things into space, and test out whether or
not they work," he says.

If the robots do work in space as well as the research team
hope, they should be available within four to five years.

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