Will we find signs of intelligent life?

Mars is a planet entirely inhabited by robots seeking to answer the question, will we find signs of intelligent life? The latest arrival is NASA’s Perseverance robot which landed this month (and if you haven’t seen the footage of the amazing parachute and drone helicopter landing, you need to see it. Visit NASAs YouTube channel). The robot’s job is to perform experiments on the Martian surface looking for evidence of life, or past life, on the red planet, our closest neighbour. Landing in the dried up remains of a riverbed and lake is the ideal place to start looking. 

All of this is up-to-the-minute news, on the cutting edge of technology. Our job as a school is to inform our students of what’s currently going on as well as educate them in what once was. Sometimes the two go together well.

For my 50th birthday at the end of last year the staff at the school, very generously, bought me my own robot. It was a kit of electronic components, to be controlled by a Raspberry Pi computer. Many of us have at some time played with radio controlled toys but this is different in a subtle and interesting way. It is in fact a simplified version of NASA’s Martian robot. Let me explain how.

Two of our A Level Physics students helped me build it. Although we had instructions, it required quite a bit of ingenuity to solve some puzzling problems as to why the thing didn’t work first time. You could say it required that most rare of attributes: perseverance. We had to buy a few extra components, download some software, learn how to adapt the software and write new code (in the Python programming language) and then, just as the real Perseverance landed on Mars, it was up and running.

The robot is fitted with an array of sensors. Among other things it can sense obstacles around it, has an infra-red sensor that can track a dark line on a plain surface and it has a camera.

The robot in action in the lab.

The robot is controlled by its onboard Raspberry pi computer. It’s programmed remotely from any laptop that wirelessly accesses its computer and sends the commands to run its program – just like the real one on Mars (you couldn’t remotely control the robot live on Mars due to the 22 minute delay in sending radio signals to Mars and back as the planet is 218 million km away.)

So congratulations to Manfred and Kian for the perseverance to get our Mini-Perseverance operating. We can now add more sensors to the robot and slowly learn to program it to do more tasks. As it explores its new environment at Fyling Hall we can pose the question – will we find signs of intelligent life? The robot’s very existence has proved the answer to that question as a firm ‘yes’.

Ayd Instone, Head of Physics