Robots Using Hansel-and-Gretel Strategy Could Map Martian Caves

Researchers claim that small robot ships could map uncharted Mars lava tunnels by occasionally releasing breadcrumb-like sensors onto cave floors.

Researchers from the University of Arizona have created small robots that leave digital breadcrumbs while investigating Martian caverns as a potential new method of scoping out properties on other worlds. It's a technique taken directly out of tradition.

The rover will be carrying tiny instruments that resemble breadcrumbs. The rover will deploy a sensor as it moves through an uncharted cave system, keep moving through the system, and then deploy a new sensor when the signal from the previous sensor starts to wane. Drop a monitor, tour the tunnel, then do it again. Through the sensors' underground information being sent back to a mother rover sitting on the surface, this effort maps the tunnel system. In an article released in Advances in Space Research last month, the technology is described in depth.

Lead author Wolfgang Fink stated in a University of Arizona press release, "One of the new aspects is what we call opportunistic deployment—the idea that you deploy the 'breadcrumbs' when you have to and not according to a previously planned schedule. At the University of Arizona, Fink teaches electrical and computer engineering.

The breadcrumbs will act as points in a vast network that will provide details on how various underground systems are laid out. By sending data to and through each node in the network, which will produce a strong signal and prevent gaps in the network if a node fails, this network will enable the nodes to transmit data back to the mother rover on the planet's surface. Since the data is relayed wirelessly, it also eliminates the need to remove the rovers from the caverns at the conclusion of their assignment, saving time and resources.

In the press release, co-author Mark Tarbell, a study scientist at the University of Arizona, said, "They can swap between each other and adjust for dead areas and signal blackouts. The mother rover never loses connection to the network's farthest node if some of the nodes perish because communication still exists through the surviving nodes.

A innovative approach to long-term living is one of the motivations behind the wish to investigate cave systems. The Moon's pits, which scientists recently discovered keep pleasant temps, might make a great place for future crewed expeditions to camp out. Similar to Earth, worlds like Mars can have extensive tunnel systems that could be inhabited by astronauts because they provide shelter from the planet's thin atmosphere and harsh surface conditions.

According to Fink, "lava tubes and caverns would make ideal homes for astronauts because you don't need to construct a building; you are protected from harmful cosmic radiation, so all you need to do is make it beautiful and cozy," said Fink in the press release.

Additionally, according to Fink and his coworkers, this methodology might be used to explore planets with large oceans or lakes. Submersibles could transmit exploration data to a lander floating on the surface using a long cable, with the nodes en route boosting the signal. After a natural disaster, such as the Turkiye earthquake in 2023, the network and rovers could also help with search and rescue operations on Earth.

All of this serves to highlight how theoretical Fink and his colleagues' research is. The next stage is to actually construct the device that will deliver the breadcrumbs. The team has constructed the rovers and the technology to enable them to interact with one another.