A swarm of robots may have dug an underground city on Mars
Subterranean habitats have recently been the subject of extraplanetary colonization efforts. Protection from micrometeorites, radiation and other potential hazards makes underground locations more attractive than surface dwellings. There are many challenges in the construction of such underground structures, among which there are ways to build them. A team of researchers from Delft University of Technology (TUD) are working on a plan to dig up materials and use them to print habitats. Everything is done in groups of swarming robots.
This idea comes from a grant opportunity published by the European Space Agency. Students of the Robot Building Lab (RB) at Delft University of Technology, led by Dr Henriettevia, enthusiastically participated in a task focused on using on-site resources for alien construction. The RB team, along with experts in materials science, robotics and aerospace engineering, submitted an idea that received € 100,000 for the preliminary development of a proof of concept.
The proposed approach focuses on the specialty of the laboratory, building robots, unearthing regoliths, printing new habitats using a layered modeling process, and all that is needed to complete task. It has four main components that coordinate the work between robots. Feed them and their habitats.
Robotic excavation of regoliths has already been studied, but is usually carried out under lunar conditions. Different excavation designs help build different structures. The model the RB team focused on was a downward spiral. Such structures can create a stable and secure structure in a relatively small footprint on the surface.
The modeling of the stresses and strains of the structure is an important element of the current research projects. The team developed a 1m x 1m scale prototype of the fragment with a pattern that can effectively create a safe and stable area. Some areas are designed in a residential spirit, such as a removable plant area that can accommodate plants grown in hydroponics.
Tons of regolith have to be removed from a full scale excavation site. Regolith is used as a material for 3D printing stable habitats. Initially, the team planned to combine regolith with liquid sulfur to make concrete. However, after involving materials scientists and an industrial partner specializing in robotic printing with cement, they decided to use part of Mars’ water resources to use cement-based concrete. However, the creation of the cement itself requires infrastructure, so such regolith use plans have to wait until the infrastructure is already installed on Earth.
The structuring of the habitat itself is also an important consideration when designing shapes for 3D printing. The team focused on the relatively porous structures, so less materials were used for the construction. However, the structure is still very strong and durable, and also provides good insulation against the impacts of radiation and micrometeoroids that underground colonies try to avoid.
Some of the benefits of this approach are due to collaboration, which is one of the biggest drivers of innovation. This project is coordinated by RB Labs, but involves both TUD partners and external business partners. These collaborators bring expertise in civil, aerospace and robotics engineering and layered modeling techniques to develop robot swarm construction approaches.
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For more information:
Design of the underground habitat of Mars for the production of robots. arxiv.org/abs/2105.02619 arXiv: 2105.02619v1 [astro-ph.IM]
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