In countless B-movies giant alien insectoids invade the Earth and wreak havoc, trampling through cities and tearing down buildings. Now we puny earthlings are hoping to turn the tables, and send insect-like robots to investigate the surface of Mars.
These “biomimetic” robots that can walk, climb and fly like real creatures are already under development – and some can almost think like them. Such designs promise to be more agile, robust and productive than the wheeled vehicles such as NASA’s Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Wheeled robots only work when the ground is flat and firm, with few boulders. Opportunity has only just freed itself after a month stuck on a 30-centimetre-high sand dune. Giving robots the ability to walk like insects, on jointed legs, makes them far more agile, allowing them to cope with large obstacles, sandy surfaces and steep inclines.