Tech Briefs

Wind-Driven Wireless Networked System of Mobile Sensors for Mars Exploration

GOne with the Wind ON-Mars (GOWON-Mars): A mobile sensor network that could be used on any windy solar system body, such as Mars or Titan.

A revolutionary way is proposed of studying the surface of Mars using a wind-driven network of mobile sensors: GOWON. GOWON would be a scalable, self-powered and autonomous distributed system that could allow in situ mapping of a wide range of environmental phenomena in a much larger portion of the surface of Mars compared to earlier missions. It could improve the possibility of finding rare phenomena such as “blueberries” or bio-signatures and mapping their occurrence, through random wind-driven search. It would explore difficult terrains that were beyond the reach of previous missions, such as regions with very steep slopes and cluttered surfaces. GOWON has a potentially long life span, as individual elements can be added to the array periodically. It could potentially provide a costeffective solution for mapping wide areas of Martian terrain, enabling leaving a long-lasting sensing and searching infrastructure on the surface of Mars.

Moballs being released on Mars." class="caption" align="right">Thanks to earlier exploration missions, there is a much better understanding of the natural characteristics of Mars; in particular, average wind speeds of 15 to 20 m/s and much higher maximum speeds have been characterized. There are communication satellite systems in place that orbit Mars and that can monitor its surface. Future Mars missions can leverage these characteristics and capabilities, and may do so by exploiting, for example, recent advances in power scavenging techniques, micro-devices using MEMS technologies, miniature instruments, low-power wireless devices, mesh networking technologies, lowpower data management strategies, and novel system architectures. The system proposed here addresses this opportunity using such technology advances in a distributed system of wind-driven sensors, referred to as Moballs.

The Moballs could communicate with each other and Earth through a satellite system orbiting Mars. Moballs would also use peer-to-peer communication to create a network of sharing data, computing, and sensing tasks. The Moballs would negotiate with each other locally and share tasks intelligently in order to optimize the entire system’s resources (energy, memory, and communication bandwidth).

Moballs would exploit local resources for locomotion and power: they would be wind-driven, and so do not need energy for locomotion. The energy required for sensing, data processing, and communication could be generated from sunlight. In addition, the Moballs could harvest energy from their motion and vibrations, thermoelectricity, and other energy scavenging techniques, when they are in shadow. Together this allows each Moball to have a low mass, enabling a large number of Moballs to be deployed by a single mission.

The effectiveness of sensor networks, as opposed to a single sophisticated sensor, is now well understood in a terrestrial setting. Mobile sensor networks are also gaining traction. There exist several proposals, for example, to exploit the accelerometers that exist in handheld cellphones to characterize earthquakes. Here it is the mobility of the cellphone users, the fact that they move about randomly and unpredictably, and that they are in constant contact with base stations that allow this. One can think of GOWON as such a mobile sensor network, making a wide range of measurements distributed across the Martian terrain, and leveraging natural resources and facilities currently in place on Mars, such as existing satellite systems.

GOWON would be a system complementary to current Mars missions, making measurements over a much larger geographic expanse than current in situ experiments, providing ground-truth for orbiting experiments, and helping identify promising locations for future manned and unmanned missions.

This work was done by Faranak Davoodi and Neil Murphy of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

    Innovative Technology Assets Management
    JPL
    Mail Stop 202-233
    4800 Oak Grove Drive
    Pasadena, CA 91109-8099
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