NASA’s self-assembling robotic structures could be the next stage of space construction

NASA’s self-assembling robotic structures could be the next stage of space construction

Image credits: NASA

The bad news if you want to move to the Moon or Mars: housing is a little hard to come by. Fortunately, NASA (as always) is thinking ahead, and has just demonstrated a self-assembling robotic structure that may just be an important part of moving off-planet.

The NASA Ames Research Center paper, published today in the journal Science Robotics, describes the creation and testing of what they call “self-reprogrammable biomechanical materials,” which is a very precise way of describing a building that builds itself. The inevitable abbreviation is “Adaptive Digital Assembly Systems for Automated Reconfigurable Mission” or ARMADAS.

“We think this kind of building technology could serve a lot of very general applications,” lead author Christine Gregg told TechCrunch. “In the near term, the robust autonomy and lightweight structures of our approach strongly benefit applications in extreme environments, such as the lunar surface or space. This includes building communications towers and shelters on the lunar surface, which will be needed before astronauts arrive, as well as on-orbit structures such as Booms and antennas.

The basic idea of ​​the self-build structure is in the intelligent synergy between the building materials — cubic-shaped frames called voxels — and the two types of robots that assemble them.

One type of robot walks on the surface with two legs, appears to be inspired by the kinesin transport molecules found in our biology, and carries a voxel like a backpack. When that’s in place, a clamping robot that lives in the frame itself slides like a worm and tightens the reversible attachment points. Neither of them require a powerful sensor system, and the way they work means that high accuracy is not required either.

You can see a pair of walkers and the mounting worm in most of the pictures in this post. The mover delivers the voxel to the placement walker, with the mounting robot below waiting to pass by and lock the frame into position.

Two robots exchange a structural element while a third waits below to attach it to the grid. Image credits: NASA

The shape of the pieces allows them to be installed at different angles while maintaining good structural strength. You probably wouldn’t want to store rocks on top of a dome made of this stuff, but they would be excellent as a base for adding insulation and sealant to building a dwelling.

“We believe this type of construction is particularly suitable for long-term and/or very large infrastructure, including habitats, instruments, or any other infrastructure on orbit or the lunar surface (utility towers, lander facilities),” the co-author said. Kenneth Cheung. “For us, structures and all robotic systems are resources that can be optimized over space and time. It seems there will always be situations where the best thing to do is to leave the structure in place (and perhaps visit it with a robot periodically), so we started with that.”

Greg noted that the pieces themselves can also be created on site:

“Voxels can be made from many different materials and manufacturing processes. Ultimately, for space applications, we would like to make voxels from materials we find in situ on the Moon or other planetary bodies.

Of course, these videos of robots in action are very fast-paced, but unlike working in a factory or a dock, speed isn’t necessarily of the essence when it comes to building things in space or on the surface of another planet.

“Our robots can work faster than shown in this paper, but we did not see that making them do so was necessary to achieve the basic goals. Basically, the way to make this system work faster is to use more robots,” Cheung said. “The overarching strategy for scalability (in terms of speed and scale) is the ability to push scale complexity into algorithms, for planning and scheduling as well as detecting errors and making fixes.”

The robots developed by the laboratory took 256 voxels and assembled them into an acceptable shelter structure during a total of 4.2 working days. Here’s what it looks like starting out (again, not close to real time):

Image credits: NASA

If we sent them to Mars or the Moon a year before the crew arrived, they could build dozens of these structures twice the size with the time to spare. Or perhaps they could install the necessary paint on the exterior afterward and seal it. This is beyond the scope of the research published today, but is an obvious next step.

Although the robots have cords that power them in this laboratory environment, they are designed with battery or on-site power operation in mind. The stabilization robot is already battery-powered, and researchers are thinking of ways to keep the walkers charged between or even during operations.

“We envision that the robots could be recharged autonomously at power stations or perhaps even send power wirelessly. As I mentioned, power could also be routed through the structure itself, which could be useful for equipping the structure as well as powering the robots.”

Illustration of the Armadas building concept under the supervision of an astronaut. Image credits: NASA

The robot versions have already flown in space and performed work in microgravity, so you don’t have to worry about this. There is nothing preventing them, in principle, from operating in non-terrestrial gravity, such as the Moon. However, this is just the beginning – such as revealing the presence of 2x4s and screws. There’s more about the capabilities and conceptual illustrations of what they could build, in this NASA news publication.

“The next versions of our robots for the laboratory environment will be faster and more reliable, building on the lessons learned from the first versions. We are very interested in understanding how different types of building blocks are integrated into structures to provide functional equipment,” Greg said.

Likewise, research will continue on architectures that use swarms of robots, not just a handful; A primitive shelter might take two walkers four days, but a shelter ten times larger could take 100 times longer. But many hands – especially robotic ones – do light work.

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