NASA Training 'Swarmie' Robots for Space Mining

A swarm of small, clever robots could be key to self-sufficient solar system exploration

3 min read
NASA Training 'Swarmie' Robots for Space Mining
Photo: Dmitri Gerondidakis/NASA

The absolute least efficient way to get air, water, and fuel into space is the way that we currently do it: by packing as much of it as we can into rockets on Earth, and then firing it off into orbit. If this is how we have to get supplies to the moon, or Mars, it's going to be ludicrously expensive and time consuming.

A much better solution is to extract everything that we need from wherever we are: where there's ice (the moon, Mars, and asteroids all have it), there's water, air with a bit of work, and with a bit more work, rocket fuel. Plus, there are likely other valuable resources scattered around all over the place, like minerals and metals. So, great, let's get on it! But first, we've got to find the stuff. And how is NASA going to do that? Robots.

The process of robotic mining itself is well established on Earth, and NASA holds an annual Robotic Mining Competition to help drive university-level research and innovation with robots competing to mine the most simulated Martian regolith (aka dirt). 

Even private companies are working on off-world mining robots. The mining hardware is a work in progress, but prospecting for the good stuff (water, ice, minerals, metals, helium-3, etc.) is more difficult. We can get a sense of generally where resources are concentrated using multispectral imaging from orbit (or from aerial platforms, where atmosphere is available), but finding the best specific little spot to start digging requires exploration and sensing at a much finer resolution.

Photo: NASA
NASA plans to use the prototype mining robot RASSOR to test how well its "Swarmie" approach translates to different robotic vehicles.

In order to figure out the best way to do this, NASA is taking inspiration from some of the finest natural engineers on Earth that aren't beavers. Or termites. Well, they're decent engineers, I guess: ants. Or even if they're not the finest natural engineers on Earth, they're great at using the fact that there are a whooole bunch of them (something in the 300 quadrillion range) to locate and exploit sources of food in their environment.

NASA's "Swarmies" robots are designed and programmed to forage like ants do. Each individual robot has basic hardware and follows a simple set of rules, and when it finds something interesting (a barcode on the ground, in this case, but you can slap whatever sensor package on them that you want), the robot calls over all its Swarmie friends to come help it out.

The current incarnation of this system only uses four robots, but it's been designed with scalability in mind, and it'll work for all different kinds of hardware. All of the benefits of swarm robotics apply here: you can deploy lots and lots of small, cheap robots that can work together to efficiently perform much of the work that would take one big, expensive robot a very long time to execute. And if you lose one or two individuals out of your swarm to mechanical issues, moonquakes, Marsnadoes, asteroid impacts, meteor impacts, meteoroid impacts, meteorite impacts, rogue AI takeovers, alien abductions, climate change, budget cuts, untrustworthy Nigerian princes, or an attack on the Deep Space Network by crazed wombats, the mission will still likely succeed. Hooray!

Next, NASA will add some robots to the mix that actually do know how to get some work done. The plan is to incorporate RASSOR, "a concept robotic vehicle evaluating designs for a future craft that could work on another world."

[ NASA ]

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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

“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.

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

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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