Hawaiian Robot Practices Landing Pad Construction for Space Exploration

Teleoperation and in-situ materials are how robots will prepare the moon and Mars for our arrival

3 min read
Hawaiian Robot Practices Landing Pad Construction for Space Exploration
Image: PISCES

In retrospect, it seems crazy that we sent people to the moon with nothing there waiting for them. If something had gone wrong, there was no Plan B. We’re probably not going to take a risk like that again, which is why we’re working so hard on robots that can go to the moon or Mars to get things all set up and running and warm and cozy for us in advance. 

Setting up bases and habitats and doing exploring and whatnot may be the exciting extraterrestrial work, but there’s other Very Important things that need to be done. One of the most important things is a high quality landing pad, and the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration (PISCES) has gotten a teleoperated robot to build one. On Earth. Gotta start somewhere, right?

The reason that you need a landing pad is that dust on the moon (and on Mars) is nasty, nasty stuff. Lack of erosive processes, especially on the moon, means that the dust is all sharp and jaggedy. It electrostatically sticks to everything, and is abrasive enough that it will gradually (or not so gradually) wear most materials, including things like seals that are designed to keep air where you want it. The dust even ate through the specially constructed sample containers that the astronauts used to try to bring it back from the moon. And let’s not even get started on how you absolutely do not want to be breathing this dust into your lungs.

Anyway, you get the idea: kicking up lots of dust on either the moon or Mars means bad times, and not kicking up lots of dust while still allowing rockets to do their things means landing pads. Nice, flat, well-constructed landing pads. PISCES is part of a joint project (along with NASA) called ACME, or Additive Construction with Mobile Emplacement. It’s all about building structures with resources that can be found on-site, so that you’re not wasting time and energy shifting massive amounts of materials from one place to another. This landing pad, for example, was constructed out of interlocking paving stones made out of basalt (a very common volcanic rock) turned into concrete. The plan would be to send some robots in advance to harvest a bunch of basalt, crush it up, mix in some additives, and then use a solar furnace to pump out paving stones that your robot then makes a landing pad out of.

As a proof of concept, PISCES’ Helelani rover, equipped with an arm from Honeybee Robotics, was teleoperated through the construction of a 100-square-foot landing pad on a simulated lunar surface. There’s video of this process, but the video is… uh, look, I’ll just come right out and say it, the video is terrible. It’s over 10 minutes long. There’s no sound, except for sometimes. A bunch of it is still photos with bizarre transitions between them. There’s even some (ugh) vertical footage. Feel free to skip through it quickly.

On a side note, searching for “PISCES 2015” on YouTube mostly returns awful video horoscopes, and in other news, LOVE WILL COME TO STAY IN FEBRUARY!!!

It sounds like the original plan was to have the robot teleoperated from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and some tests were run to show that it was possible to do this, although most of the control was performed from a tent next to the work site. Whether you’re next to the robot or not, as long as you’re only depending on data coming back from the robot itself, you can simulate long-distance teleoperation by introducing a time delay and simulating degradation, DRC-style.

Hopefully, we’ll see a more complete end-to-end process through PISCES and ACME soon, including a remote version of the basal concrete manufacturing process. When there’s a complete team of robots that can go all the way from in-situ raw materials to finished structures, that’s something we can get really, really excited about.

[ PISCES ] via [ PopSci ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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