Biomorphic gliders are small robotic microflyers proposed for use in scientific exploration of planetary atmospheres and terrains that capture some key features of insect and bird flight. Biomorphic gliders as biomorphic flight systems are a subset of biomorphic explorers. The multidisciplinary system concept of "Biomorphic Explorers" represents small, dedicated, low-cost explorers that possess some of the key features of biological systems, not easily captured by conventional robotic systems. Such features particularly include versatile mobility, adaptive controls, bioinspired sensor mechanisms, biomorphic sensor fusion, biomorphic communications, biomorphic cooperative behavior, distributed operations, and biomorphic energy generation/conversion. Significant scientific and technological payoff at a low cost is realizable by using the potential offered by a large number of such cooperatively operating biomorphic explorer units in concert with the traditional exploration platforms such as the lander/rover, orbiter, etc., for example.
Biomorphic Explorers and some concepts on biomorphic surface/subsurface systems have been described in several previous articles in NASA Tech Briefs, the most relevant being "Biomorphic Explorers" (NPO-20142), Vol. 22, No. 9, (September 1998), page 71; "Earthwormlike Exploratory Robots" (NPO-20266), Vol. 22, No. 6, (June 1998), page 11b; and "Insectile and Vermitorm Exploratory Robots" (NPO-20381), Vol. 23, No. 11, (November, 1999), page 61. Particularly, the biomorphic glider is a small, simple, low-cost system ideal for distributed measurements, reconnaissance, and wide-area dispersion of sensors and small experiments.
The key specifications/ features of a biomorphic glider include: mass of 100 to 500 g, payload fraction > 50 percent, large range of aerial mobility of 10 to 100 km, volume 300 to 5,000 cm3, active flight control, solar navigation, soaring flight using atmospheric energy, cooperative mission using from 10 to 30 gliders providing coverage of area of about 100 × 100 km. The glider is particularly suitable for deployment in large numbers to perform reconnaissance over large areas. A typical biomorphic glider (see figure) would be equipped with sensors (meteorological instrumentation such as temperature, pressure, solar irradiance, and moisture sensor, etc., and/or miniature imagers for close-up imaging of the terrain) sensory-data-handling circuitry, flight-control actuators, control circuitry, and a radio transmitter and receiver. A biomorphic glider could navigate autonomously (e.g., by reference to the direction of the Sun). In a typical operation, multiple biomorphic gliders would be released from an aircraft or spacecraft in orbit/fly-by mode at an altitude of several kilometers and sent off to explore in different directions. Alternatively, they could be launched from a Lander to inspect a number of sites and provide valuable information to allow selection of the best site for further probing by the rover. Biomorphic gliders could thereby enable enhanced data return for sample-return reconnaissance missions and provide a new capability for distributed measurements.
Additionally, the time aloft could be prolonged by controlling a biomorphic glider to utilize atmospheric energy in the same manner as that of soaring birds and particularly soaring insects that migrate large distances using such a capability.
During the flight of a biomorphic glider, the onboard instrumentation could gather data on the atmosphere and terrain. Images acquired by a small onboard video camera could contribute data for maps of the terrain, could be processed to identify targets for closer examination, and/or used to guide the glider to a landing at a chosen target site. A variety of surface instruments/experiments could be deployed by the glider on landing. The results of the analysis would be transmitted to a relay point, which could be, for example, a receiver aboard the lander or the aircraft/spacecraft from which the glider was released.
This work was done by Sarita Thakoor of Caltech and Carlos Miralles of AeroVironment for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.nasatech.com/tsp under the Physical Sciences category.