ExoFly Flapping Planetary Survey Aerobot

ExoFly is a light-weight flapping wing robotic fly under development for use as a planetary survey and exploration tool. The device is based on the well-known DelFly, very small micro camera plane (just three grams!).

Flapping winged flight is well suited to the low density and highly viscous Martian atmosphere, but may also be used in a denser atmosphere such as Titan. In any planetary mission, ExoFly would be a highly innovative mission element, technically part of the mission infrastructure, but enabling scientific breakthrough observations with the imaging system and micro-payload.

A demonstrator has been implemented for use in Earth atmosphere, capable of autonomous, stable and robust straight-line flight and hovering, as well as take-off and landing capabilities. This demonstrator has a total weight of 17 grams and is able to fly for 12 minutes with onboard energy storage and a pinhole camera payload.


(ExoFly Flapping Planetary Survey Aerobot [pdf])

Scientists are excited to be able to break away from the limitations of traditional, ground-based exploration of planetary surfaces, so ably carried out by robotic explorers like the Mars rovers.

One of the most important aspects of ExoFly is that it will provide outcrop scale visual information from a mobile platform. The importance of such observations on the planetary surface can not be overemphasized: most of the clues about the current environmental conditions (e.g. wind, chemical erosion) or the past environment, though geological studies of the rock record (e.g. sedimentary structures, volcanic flow features indicative of water depth, particle size in fans and deltas) are between 1mm and 1 m in size. To avoid misinterpretations, such features need to be analysed in 3D, such as commonly done during field expeditions on Earth. Current planetary data sources, from orbit or from a rover, can not provide such observations, due to a combination of lack of visual resolution, atmospheric haze, and limitations in mobility and viewing angles.

I can't think of the of a better science-fictional precursor than the iconic Scarab flying insect robot from Raymond Z. Gallun's The Scarab, published in Astounding Stories magazine in 1936.

The Scarab rubbed its hind legs together, as flies will do when at rest. Then, apparently satisfied that it was in condition, it unfolded the coleoptera-like plates over its wings. With a buzz that any uninformed person would have mistaken for that of a beetle, it started out on its journey.
(Read more about the scarab flying insect robot)

The Scarab was also flown by remote control; the pilot was able to see what the Scarab saw with its "minute vision tubes."

Read the short paper abstract provided in PDF format - ExoFly: a flapping wing aerobot for planetary survey and exploration - for more information.

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