A tiny clear plastic robot with colorful wires jutting out of it walks over sandy terrain.

Activity Notes

Overview

This project will help students understand the engineering process by allowing them to design a robotic insect for an extraterrestrial environment. Students will design their robotic insect to meet the requirements of a given environment; adapt their designs to changes in or new information about the environment; and compare the process to the one NASA engineers use to design robots for other planets, like Mars.

Materials

Management

  • Optionally, you can put students in groups of two to four and have the groups create a single design together. You can also give each group a different environment for which to create their designs.

Tips for Remote Instruction

  • Provide students with the environment details and have them design their robots as an independent activity. (See student activity guide.) Then, have students share their designs for discussion with the class at a later date.

Background

The insects around us have parts or structures that serve unique functions. For instance, insects have compound eyes, which help them see, provide a wider field of view than a human eye, and allow them to track fast movements.

In the same way, robots are built with structures and parts that each have a specific function. Like insects, robots built to explore other planets need to move, so they often have wheels that allow them to go from place to place. NASA's Mars rovers Perseverance and Curiosity have tools, or "instruments," that allow them to touch and analyze the soil around them, similar to how an insect might feel and taste the soil and rocks in its environment. Cameras are often used to provide sight to robots and their human operators, who might be far away – even on another planet. Insects use their antennae to sense the world around them through touch and smell, and sometimes through hearing and making noise. Similarly, robotic spacecraft use an antenna to communicate information about what's around them (although spacecraft antennas look and work a bit differently).

There are all kinds of similarities between insects and robotics. In fact, NASA engineers often get their inspiration from insects and nature when building robots to go to extreme places.

See how geckos inspired a new NASA technology that makes things stick to each other in space. Potential future applications might be to grab satellites to service them or to salvage space garbage to try to clear it out of the way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

Procedures

  1. Ask students about insects: What is an insect? What kinds of insects do you know about or have you seen before? What kinds of structures do they have, and why do you think that is?
  2. Discuss the basic structures of insects and/or pass out The Structure of Insects page from the student worksheet. Insects' bodies are made up of three main parts:

    • A head with eyes, mouth, and antennae
    • A thorax with legs and/or wings
    • An abdomen that contains their organs

    Learn about other structures found on insects and their purposes in the table below.

    The Structure of Insects

    Robots Inspired by Nature

    A cube-shaped robot with chunky legs and large disk-like hands is perched downsloap on a rock as stars pass through the purple and blue night sky above

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    LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robots)Can scale rock walls, gripping with hundreds of tiny fish hooks in each of its 16 fingers. Uses artificial intelligence (AI) to find its way around obstacles.
    › Read more
    A tiny clear plastic robot with colorful wires jutting out of it walks over sandy terrain

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    SpiderBotA micro robot that is designed to chart the terrain on other planets and explore smaller bodies, such as comets, asteroids, or the Moon.
    › Read more
    A tiny two-wheeled robot with two cameras in the place of eyes rolls over a small rock

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    A-PUFFER (Autonomous Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot)Foldable robots that could scout regions on the Moon and gain intel about locations that may be difficult for astronauts to investigate on foot, like hard-to-reach craters and narrow caves.
    › Read more
    An illustration of a cube-shaped robot with six spider-like legs exploring a pink and purple icy surface

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    SPARROW (Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds)Would be propelled by steam and hop across the icy terrains, like those found on Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus.
    › Read more
    A circular robot with four skinny legs hangs on to the edge of a space capsule in this artist concept

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    GeckobotA gripping system inspired by the tiny hairs on the bottom of geckos' feet allows this robot to cling to vertical walls and other surfaces.
    › Read more
    An orange robot with two spikey wheels on either side of a hexagonal axle

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    BRUIE (Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration)Designed for underwater exploration in extraterrestrial, icy waters, this robot uses its two wheels to roll on the underside of the ice covering bodies of water.
    › Read more
    A robot with a torso-like body and four articulating legs

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    RoboSimianAn ape-like robot that could respond to disaster scenarios too dangerous for humans.
    › Read more
  3. Tell students they'll be drawing a design for their own robotic insect that, like a real insect, must have special characteristics to live in a specific environment. It can be big or small and have any kind of characteristic that they think would work. Maybe it has wings or wheels, or eyes that can see how hot or cold something is. Encourage students to be creative when designing their robotic insects (e.g., laser eyes, 10 sets of wings, wheels for legs). The structures do not need to be limited to what occurs in nature.
  4. Pass out or refer students to the My Robotic Insect's Environment page of the student worksheet and/or inform students that they will be designing their robotic insect to go to an environment that is sunny, cold, and rocky with vast open spaces. There will be hills and valleys to navigate. The robot may need to travel long distances. The environment can be very dusty and windy. Explain that students' designs should include features that allow robots to explore this unique environment as well as structures that allow it to break apart rocks.
  5. Give students 25 minutes (or a limited amount of time) to draw a design for their robotic insect on a piece of paper or the student worksheet. Tell them that during the activity, the environment at their robot's destination may begin to change, or they might learn additional information, so they will need to be able to adapt their robotic insect design as they draw it!

    • At 5 minutes in, tell students: "We have now learned there is a large amount of dust and dirt in the environment and there's a dust storm! Make sure your robotic insect is able to withstand strong winds." Remember, a dust storm can block out the sunlight, which may impact power generated by a solar-powered robotic insect.
    • At 10 minutes in, tell students: “Your robotic insect now needs to travel longer distances to explore a rock, hill, or valley that you can see on the horizon.”
    • At 15 minutes in, ask students to start wrapping up their drawings. End the activity after 20-25 minutes.
  6. Instruct students to give their robotic insect a name and complete the rest of the student worksheet. Ask them to describe their robotic insect and why they chose the features they did. Have students compare their drawings with their peers. What are the specific functions they wanted their robotic insect to have? How does their design meet the unique challenges of the environment?

Discussion

A collage of images of Mars shows a rocky, hilly landscape, an overhead view of a dust devil moving across brown plains, and a rock-filled slope with patches of white frost.

This collage of Mars images from NASA spacecraft shows (counter-clockwise from top): A portion of a panorama image taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS › Full image and caption; An image taken in 1979 by the Viking 2 lander showing a thin frost surrounding the lander on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech › Full image and caption; A 12-mile-high dust devil was captured swirling over the plains of Mars in this image from the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA › Full image and caption | + Expand image

A view of two of the Curiosity rover's wheels that show large holes and damaged sections

Damage to Curiosity's left-middle and left-rear wheels can be seen in this image taken by the rover on Mars in 2016 using the camera at the end of its robotic arm. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS | + Expand image

A graphic of Curiosity's chevron-patterned wheel tread next to Perseverance's more compact and slightly curved tread.

In place of Curiosity's 24 chevron-pattern treads are 48 gently curved ones on Perseverance. Extensive testing indicates that the new treads on Perseverance will better withstand the pressure from sharp rocks and grip just as well or better than Curiosity's when driving on sand. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

  • As the students explain their designs, project images of the Martian landscape. Tell students that this is the environment they have designed for, but do not mention it is Mars yet.
  • Explain that the environment that was described was the Martian landscape. Why would or wouldn’t their robotic insects succeed on Mars? What would they need that Earth has but Mars doesn’t? Is there anything they could do to help their robotic insects succeed on Mars? What would they change?
  • NASA's Curiosity Mars rover went to the Red Planet with a unique wheel pattern, designed to give the rover more traction. Once the rover had spent some time driving around Mars, engineers at NASA learned that the sharp rocks were damaging the wheels’ treads. So the next rover, Perseverance, has different wheels designed to better withstand the terrain on Mars. What are some other means of motion that may help us traverse Mars without damaging our robotic spacecraft?
  • Opportunity was a solar-powered rover that explored Mars for almost 15 years until a dust storm ended the mission. How would a dust storm impact a solar-powered robot on Mars?

Assessment

  • Students should be able to describe how a feature included in their design is expected to function.
  • Students should be able to explain how they changed their design as new information was presented to them.

Extensions

  • Change the environment to another planet or location. This could be an environment that requires climbing, lifting heavy objects, and/or avoiding hazards like fire or fallen debris. Compare students' designs to RoboSimian, an ape-like robot designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
  • Have students write in their science journals about how their experience designing a robotic insect compares to designing a spacecraft.

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