Washington: NASA is studying concepts for robots that might stay aloft for long periods in atmospheres of planets like Jupiter without wings or hot-air balloons.
These "windbots" might use air turbulence for lift and to generate power to stay aloft in a planet's atmosphere, the US space agency said.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is investigating the feasibility of creating a new class of robotic probes.
Although no space mission is currently scheduled to utilise "windbots", the researchers hope their study will open new avenues for atmospheric science on gas giant planets using high-mobility robotic explorers.
Unlike the moon and Mars, which have already been explored by robotic rovers, gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn have no solid surface on which a probe could land.
Adrian Stoica, principal investigator for the windbots study at JPL, points to a great example to think about from nature: a dandelion seed.
"A dandelion seed is great at staying airborne. It rotates as it falls, creating lift, which allows it to stay afloat for a long time, carried by the wind. We will be exploring this effect on 'windbot' designs," Stoica said.
To stay airborne for a long time, a "windbot" would need to be able to use energy available in the planet's atmosphere.
That energy might not be solar, because the probe could find itself on the planet's night side for an extended period.
Nuclear power sources also could be a liability for a floating probe because of their weight.
But winds, temperature variations and even a planet's magnetic field could potentially be sources of energy an atmospheric probe could exploit.
The team suspects the best bet for an atmospheric robot to harvest energy is turbulence -- wind that's frequently changing direction and intensity.
The model "acewindbot" would be subjected to carefully controlled turbulent airflows to determine how best to design systems that react and reorient the robot to keep it aloft.
After that, the team would move on to investigating means, such as electronic sensors, for a windbot to perceive the wind field in the environment around itself.
Putting these capabilities together into a functional prototype would be left for a future study.
That team has recently begun studying this possibility, thanks to a one-year $100,000 study funded by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme.
The "windbots" may also come in handy as an additional tool to help scientists understand turbulent weather phenomena on the Earth, such as hurricanes, without venturing beyond our planet's atmosphere.