NASA engineers and interns are testing a group of robots and related software that will show whether it's possible for autonomous machines to scurry about an alien world such as the Moon, searching for and gathering resources just as an ant colony does.

The four 'swarmies' with the software simulation used to develop the control program. (NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis)

Programs would tell small, wheeled robots to go out in different directions and randomly search an area for a particular material. The four robots, called "swarmies," resemble stripped-down radio-controlled trucks. Each features a webcam, WiFi antenna, and GPS device. They are being programmed to work on their own to survey an area, then call the others over when they find a cache of something valuable.

The engineers also use a computer simulator that wrings out their software before they turn on a single swarmie. The simulator allows them to test the network with many more robots at the same time without having to build a huge fleet of them. The system can likely be modified for use in search and rescue tasks, with small robots heading out looking through the wreckage of a natural disaster or crash. They also could make efficient inspectors of pipelines and water mains.