“Swarms of robots” could build underground shelters on Mars
It sounds like science fiction. In the proposal of an out-of-the-world European construction team, swarms of autonomous and cooperative robots would dig and strengthen underground ant-like colonies for human habitation on Mars.
The European Space Agency recently awarded a grant to a team of engineers at the Robotics Construction Lab at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, to study how swarms of robots could build such structures. This month, the founder and current director of the lab, engineer Henriette Bier, posted some preliminary details of the concept of his team, which would use Zebra robots to dig underground housing networks on the Red Planet, fortified with 3D printed Martian concrete.
The project is very in the conceptual phase, but the technologies to make it possible are coming to Earth, says Jekan thanga, a robotics researcher not involved in the Delft team that specializes in alien technologies at the University of Arizona. But, he says, “getting it out of the world is another challenge.”
Mars presents many dangers for future human explorers who wish to reside there. From high levels of ionizing radiation to drastic temperature variations from day to night, long-term residents will need more than a sturdy tent to live comfortably. Living several meters underground would block most radiation and ensure a more stable temperature.
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Amazon does not yet offer free shipping to Mars, so getting building materials there is still very expensive. That’s why researchers are looking for ways to use locally sourced materials as much as possible in building Martian habitats.
Zebro robots, also developed in Delft, with the imprint of a simple sheet of paper, would dig tunnels down spiraling and fortify the walls as they go with concrete. Tapping into what is immediately plentiful, concrete could be made on site by combining cement with some of the excavated dust and rock. Some robots would dig while others would reinforce the walls with autonomously generated 3D printed structures.
Bier’s team consists of his students and other robotics faculties in Delft. She says that by using 3D printing technologies, she and her team “developed designs of porous materials,” which allows for faster construction and more efficient use of materials. The empty pockets would also allow better insulation. In addition to pure optimization, 3D printing enables unconventional and versatile design forms crafted by artificial intelligence.
Digging and building on unfamiliar Martian terrain will “certainly be a challenge,” Bier says. Robots will have to adapt to difficult and messy terrain, but artificial intelligence could make that possible, she says. Swarms of robots are useful because they can communicate with each other, multitask, and continue to function if a limb becomes unusable.
This is similar to how termites work together. “They work as a team, but if you kill an individual… the team goes on without a hitch,” Thanga said.
This project is not for the first wave of Martian colonists, who will likely need something more temporary and modular. Because these underground settlements would need concrete, the first task would be to build the infrastructure to produce concrete and preferably more robots as well.
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NASA and other groups have looked at different potential shelters on Mars, Thanga says, including ideas for houses made out of sandbags or ice. But deep underground structures offer a more permanent option and require little water, a precious resource on such a dry planet.
Bier says the construction industry is generally conservative and therefore has not seriously invested in new technologies like robotics or 3D printed houses, on which a few startups are working. She points to the company ICON, which has built inexpensive concrete houses in a few days and is considering 3D printing. structures on the moon. In 2019, NASA also hosted a 3D printed habitat challenge in which teams competed to design sustainable homes for a life out of the world.
She hopes that the pursuit of these technologies on Earth will lead to advancements in non-world technology, and that this non-world technology could in turn lead to new advances on Earth.
The addition of swarm technology could further amplify these advancements. Thanga says humans have been using the logic of swarm societies for thousands of years. A group of Roman soldiers could regroup into a turtle-like formation, covered with shields on all sides to defeat unorganized but similarly armed enemies. “They became invincible this way,” Thanga says. Perhaps swarms of robots on Mars can one day achieve similar feats.