Dr. Chang-kwon Kang

Dr. Chang-kwon Kang’s proposal on Marsbees was one of only 25 selected for NASA’s 2018 Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which funds early-stage technology that has the potential to revolutionize future space exploration.

Michael Mercier | UAH

A proposal on Marsbees submitted by Dr. Chang-kwon Kang, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), was one of only 25 selected to receive a 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) award. Dr. Kang’s collaborators on the proposal include Drs. Farbod Fahimi, Brian Landrum, and Guangsheng Zhang from UAH’s Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering; Dr. Bryan Mesmer from UAH’s Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Engineering Management; Dr. Rob Griffin from UAH’s Department of Atmospheric Science; Dr. Taeyoung Lee from George Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science; and Dr. Aono Hikaru from the Tokyo University of Science.

"We are very excited about this opportunity," says Dr. Kang. "Flying on Mars is challenging because of the ultra-low density in the Martian atmosphere. Our preliminary work shows that bio-inspired aerodynamic mechanisms can help in generating sufficient lift to fly on Mars."

The NIAC program, which invests in early-stage technology with the potential to revolutionize future space exploration, provides up to $125,000 in funding over nine months to awardees; those whose concepts successfully undergo feasibility testing are then eligible to apply for Phase II awards.

"The NIAC program gives NASA the opportunity to explore visionary ideas that could transform future NASA missions by creating radically better or entirely new concepts while engaging America’s innovators and entrepreneurs as partners in the journey," says Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. "The concepts can then be evaluated for potential inclusion into our early-stage technology portfolio."

Dr. Kang’s proposal, entitled "Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration," seeks to increase the set of possible exploration and science missions on Mars by investigating the feasibility of flapping-wing aerospace architectures in a Martian environment. At its center is the Marsbee, a robotic bumble-bee-sized flapping-wing flyer whose large cicada-like wings have the ability to generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere. Integrated with sensors and wireless communication devices, these flyers would work in a swarm, with a mobile base serving as their recharging station and a main communication center.

Marsbee one payload module, GNC, data transmission. Rover, recharge station, sensor module unit and communication to main base.

Ultimately, the hope is that the Marsbees will be able to provide point measurements of the pressure, temperature, or chemical composition of the planet. "They could also aid in collaborative terrain mapping," says Dr. Landrum, who is an associate professor and the associate chair of UAH’s Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. "And, of course, their capabilities would expand as miniaturized sensor technologies and more efficient batteries become available."

At present, however, the objective is more modest. "With this Phase I award, we want to determine the wing design, motion, and weight that can hover with optimal power in Mars’ atmospheric conditions and to assess the hummingbird micro-air vehicle – one of only a few robotic flappers in the world that can fly on Earth – in Mars conditions," says Dr. Kang. "Our UAH colleagues will numerically model, analyze, and optimize a flapping flyer for Martian atmospheric conditions, while our Japanese colleagues will develop and test a micro-flapping robot that is uniquely designed and constructed for the low-density atmosphere on Mars."

Should the team go on to receive a Phase II award, the goal will be to build on this research by addressing the maneuverability, wind gust rejection, takeoff/landing, power implications, remote sensing, and mission optimization of the Marsbees. But for now, says Dr. Kang, the focus is on the initial task of proving the feasibility of the Marsbee concept over the next nine months.

"One of our main goals for the first phase is to experimentally demonstrate that these Marsbees can lift off their own weight in Martian density conditions in the vacuum chamber of UAH’s Propulsion Research Center," he says. "Our long-term overarching goal is to develop swarms of Marsbees that can help with the human exploration on Mars."