Ant logic makes sense in space
10 September 2005
NewScientist.com news service
A spacecraft skin is being developed that assesses the severity
of any damage it suffers from space debris and other impacts. The
project, which is inspired by the behaviour of ants, is seen as
the first step towards a self-repairing craft.
The team at CSIRO, Australia's national research organisation, is
working with NASA on the project and has so far created a model
skin made up of 192 separate cells. Behind each cell is an impact
sensor and a processor equipped with algorithms that allow it to
communicate only with its immediate neighbours. Just as ants
secrete pheromones to help guide other ants to food, the CSIRO
algorithms leave digital messages in cells around the system,
indicating for instance the position of the boundary around a
damaged region. The cell's processor can use this information to
route data around the affected area.
The team hopes to refine the system so it can distinguish between
different types of damage, such as corrosion and sudden impacts,
which might require a rapid repair job. Other groups are
developing impact sensor systems controlled by a centralised
processor. But such systems would fail if the area containing the
processor were damaged. So a distributed system could be much
more reliable, says Bill Prosser of NASA's Nondestructive
Evaluation Sciences Branch in Langley, Virginia.
NASA's ultimate aim is to create what it calls Ageless Aerospace
Vehicles, which can detect, diagnose and fix damage (Robotics and
Autonomous Systems, DOI: 10.1016/j.robot.2005.06.003).