Ideas and Dreams

Like any scientist, I often measure my observations of the world in terms of solutions. Nature is no exception. I am always observing systems in nature to wonder how their workings, interactions and natural designs can be applied to scientific problems. By my own admission, this discussion - while based on scientific observation - has some rather fanciful overtones. I presented this original idea, dubbed "Bumble Bees to Mars" at the New Concepts Forum at Los Alamos National Laboratory, January 14, 1994. Whether you can embrace this or not, please accept it in the spirit with which I share it: as food for thought.

--Robert Hockaday.

When I watch conventional space probes being launched, I see elephants. Someday I’d like to see bumble bees. Of course this isn’t literal, elephants and bumble bees are models from nature that I believe relate to the physics of propulsion and movement of mass.

Current spacecraft are built with most of their mass and weight devoted to structure, like elephants with their big, solid bones. Since microengineering makes it possible to create exceedingly small, lightweight things, I believe it would be more efficient and effective to build simple unmanned spacecraft that are more like insects—with no intended bones at all. Ideally, these spacecraft would be about the size of a toy balloon and weigh about as much as a bumble bee. Swarms of these little crafts could conduct all the information gathering tasks now accomplished by a single multi-million-dollar probe.

Each bumble bee space probe would look like a Mylar balloon studded with tiny solar panels. The solar panels would heat gases inside the balloon, creating a high-energy propulsion system. Going back to the model of the elephant and the bumble bee: Because the balloon probes would be small and lightweight, they would move more swiftly than the large, plodding elephant-like conventional probes and could perhaps reach Mars in weeks rather than months.

The whole idea behind launching a swarm of the bumble bee probes is that, just like social insects like ants and bees, the individuals work collectively to accomplish more than the individual insect. Each bumble bee probe would carry a single one-function sensor. Data could be transmitted to an orbiting, better-equipped probe, then back to Earth. Another advantage of the bumble bee balloon probes might be that they could better penetrate harsh planetary atmospheres such as Jupiter’s without burning up and are better suited to landing. Their lightness and shape would allow them to drift down slowly, rather than plummeting like a solid object. Again, consider the physics and engineering required to “land” an elephant as compared to “landing:" a bumble bee.

And if you look into the future, you could see that since this kind of technology would only require a ten or twenty-foot rocket and lightweight materials, kids could launch their own space probes from the backyard to explore the universe…

Although this discussion has some rather fanciful overtones, it is based on scientific observation. As an inventor, I am always observing systems in nature and wondering how the workings, interactions and natural designs I see can be applied to scientific problems. I presented this original idea, dubbed “Bumble Bees to Mars” at the New Concepts Forum at Los Alamos National Laboratory, January 14, 1994. At the forum I proposed that a single function solar-powered space ship the size of a balloon, and weight of a bumble bee could have a propulsion performance exceeding that of conventional space craft. I further elaborated on the swarm principle, in which the space ships operating collectively with insect-like behavior, could conduct the same tasks that are now performed by a single multi-million-dollar space probe.

This fundamental concept comes from four design premises:

1. Keep it small. The specific power-to-weight ratio of a diffuse energy collector scales with the inverse of the dimensions of the collector for a fixed stiffness. What this means is that for energy collectors—such as solar collectors and windmills—the energy per unit mass (specific energy) goes down as the collector area increases. This occurs because the structural overhead must go up proportionately to the dimension of the system in order to withstand the increasing forces on the structure. This principle of scaling is easier to understand in relation to examples in nature. Insects have no bones. This keeps the fraction of their total mass needed for structural stiffness low. In contrast, large animals, such as elephants, have a large fraction of their mass devoted to structural support, and are not very stiff.

2. Maximize the flight performance. Conventional space missions usually begin with the goal of delivering an instrument. Scientists must then figure out how to get it there. I decided to turn it around and work from the rocket’s point of view. That means, minimizing the structural mass and finding ways to get rid of dead weight. For really high performance, we assume that part of the reaction mass comes from the structure of the rocket.

3. Keep it simple. Explore what can be accomplished with simple insect-like behavior. That is, social insects, such as ants and bees, work as a collective group that functions more like a single organism. This primitive organization means that the group can accomplish more than individual insects working alone.

4. Figure out the mission after designing the rocket. See what useful mission could fit within this criterion.




Robert Hockaday



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