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Mechanical bugs exploring Mars?

If you guessed B movie title . . . Wrong!It's a concept that Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists hope to make reality in a few years.

While counterparts at other universities are struggling to plan sophisticated robots smart enough for interplanetary exploration, MIT researchers already have built a swarm of "microbots" they compare to insects that are being pitched for missions to the moon and Mars.

"Small robots have the mobility and sensory abilities to do this for a lot less money," said Colin Angle, a graduate student at MIT's robotics lab.

The use of tiny robots in space is an outgrowth of a program that eventually aims to duplicate devices with both intelligence and reason.

The thinking at MIT is that it makes more sense to start at the bottom of the evolutionary scale rather than set out to duplicate the human brain from scratch.

"There's a view that the very high-level things that only humans do is what makes up intelligence," said Rodney A. Brooks, director of what MIT graduate students call the artificial insect lab. "But those things are grounded in what all other creatures do," down to the lowliest.

Like beetles, the synthetic bugs at MIT can walk on an uneven surface by sensing and responding to its hills and valleys, climb a wall, identify objects and scamper out of sight when the lights go on. Their creators hope these man-made insects someday will explore the moon and Mars.

Researchers plan to add one function after another until their robots can display intelligent behavior without the need for human supervision.

"The ultimate goal is to build really useful systems and to understand how the brain works," Brooks said. "Certainly understanding how the brain works is not going to be a short-term thing. In the meantime, we have these practical applications."

MIT researchers last week told scientists and administrators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., that the tiny six-legged robots they've designed as cheap explorers could precede a manned mission to Mars.

National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration examiners previously have been skeptical about the concept.