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NASA is working to develop a swarm of cell-phone-sized swimming robots in a bid to bolster its exploration and dig deeper for signs of life on distant planets. These Sensing With Independent Micro-Swimmers (SWIM) robots are being designed with the ability to swim in oceans covered in thick layers of ice, while looking for evidence of life. SWIM relies on miniaturised robotics and is the brainchild of robotics mechanical engineer Ethan Schaler from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.  “My idea is, where can we take miniaturised robotics and apply them in interesting new ways for exploring our solar system? With a swarm of small swimming robots, we are able to explore a larger volume of ocean water and improve our measurements by having multiple robots collecting data in the same area,” said Schaler.According to the concept, NASA’s small wedge-shaped robots will measure 5 inches in length and 3 to 5 cubic metres in volume. Around four dozen of these tiny robots would fit in a 4-inch-long section of a  cryobot module measuring 10 inches in diameter, while taking up only 15 percent of the science payload volume.While taking up a small amount of space, the SWIM robots would leave enough room for other instruments that are powerful but not as mobile as the tiny robots. However, these instruments would gather crucial data during the journey through the ice and offer stationary measurements in the ocean.The innovation is significantly smaller than other concepts of ocean exploration robots and the tiny swimmers could be released into the ocean where the probe can’t reach. In addition, the SWIM concept is also aimed at reducing the risk during exploration. The cryobot would be connected to the surface-based lander via a communications tether, where the lander would serve as a point of contact with Earth. This approach is likely to help the cryobot explore beyond the point where ice meets the ocean.“What if, after all those years it took to get into an ocean, you come through the ice shell in the wrong place? What if there are signs of life over there but not where you entered the ocean?” said SWIM team scientist Samuel Howell of JPL.The SWIM robots will allow the data to be gathered away from the extremely hot nuclear battery of the cryobot as it melts and makes its way through the ice. In addition, the robots could be made to flock together like birds and fishes eliminating the issue of overlapping measurements and reducing errors in data collected.



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