Typically, we send rovers to our planetary neighbors one at a time -- but what if we sent a small team of smaller, less impressive robots instead? That's the idea NASA is exploring at Kennedy Space Center with Swarmies: a quartet of four autonomous robots designed to work together to complete a single mission. Working as a colony of insects might, the four machines use a combination of WiFi, GPS and webcams to survey an area, assess its value and contact the other robots if assistance is needed. The robots are less advanced than a typical rover might by, but working in tandem allows them to cover more ground. It also serves as a security measure: if one rover fails, there are three left to complete the mission.

"For a while, people were interested in putting as much smarts and capacity as they could on their one robot," says Kurt Leucht, one of the engineers working on the project. "Now people are realizing you can have much smaller, much simpler robots that can work together and achieve a task" Right now the machines are just prototypes, but if all goes well they may one day be used in search and rescues missions, or even scaled up for use in space. "Assuming this pays off," Leucht says," we know somebody's going to take this and extend it and go beyond the four or five rovers we have here."

[Image credit: NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis]