Researchers recruit swarms of robots to exploit lunar resources


By Emily Dieckman, College of Engineering


University of Arizona engineering faculty members Jekan Thanga (right) and Moe Momayez received $ 500,000 in funding from NASA for a new project to advance exploration methods space that use swarms of autonomous robots. They are pictured with a low cost, quickly designed 3D printed rover prototype used to test a new generation of miniature sensors for applications in lunar mining.
Chris Richards / University of Arizona

As scientists begin to more seriously consider building bases on celestial bodies such as the moon, the idea of ​​space mining is gaining popularity.

After all, if someone from Los Angeles moved to New York to build a house, it would be much easier to buy the building materials in New York than to buy them in Los Angeles and haul them 2,800 miles. . Considering that the distance between the Earth and the Moon is around 85 times greater and that in order to achieve this you have to defy gravity, using the existing resources of the Moon is an attractive idea.

A team from the University of Arizona, led by researchers from the College of Engineering, received $ 500,000 in funding from NASA for a new project to advance methods of space exploration using swarms of robots autonomous. As a Hispanic institution, the university was eligible to receive funding under NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project on Space Technology Artemis Research Initiative.

“It’s really exciting to be at the forefront of a new field,” said Moé Momayez, Acting Head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering and the David & Edith Lowell Chair in Mining and Geological Engineering. “I remember watching TV shows when I was a kid, like ‘Space: 1999’, which talks about basics on the moon. Here we are in 2021, and we are talking about colonizing the moon.”

Be set on fire!

According to the giant impact hypothesis, the Earth and the moon originate from a common parent body, so scientists expect their chemical compositions to be relatively similar. Mining on the moon’s surface could produce rare earth metals needed by technologies such as smartphones and medical equipment, titanium for use in titanium alloys, precious metals such as gold and platinum and helium-3 – a stable isotope of helium that could power nuclear power plants but is extremely rare on Earth.

To extract ore embedded in rock on Earth, miners have to drill through rock, which is one of Momayez’s specialties. He developed an electrochemical process to pierce rock five times faster than any other method. But lunar mining presents a new challenge.

“Here on Earth we have an unlimited amount of energy to spend on breaking rocks,” he said. “On the moon you have to be a lot more conservative. For example, to break rocks we use a lot of water, and that’s something we won’t have on the moon. So we need new processes. , new techniques. The most efficient way to break rocks on Earth is by blasting, and no one has ever set off an explosion on the Moon. “

Swarms of robots, powered by HEART

illustration of a mining base on the moon

An illustration of a lunar polar mining base with buried crew habitats, widely spaced solar panels, a propellant production plant, and a depot tank farm.
Anna nesterova

Finding the best way to extract lunar material from laboratory space on Earth is a tall order for humans. This is where the swarms of autonomous robots come in.

Jekan thanga, associate professor in aerospace and mechanical engineering, adapts a technique of neuromorphic learning architecture, which he developed in his laboratory, called the human and explainable autonomous robotic system, or HEART. The system will not only train robots to work together on mining, excavation and even construction tasks, but it will also allow robots to improve their collaboration skills over time.

The team plans to build and train the robots here on Earth, so they can train. Ultimately, the researchers envision a swarm of fully autonomous robots that don’t need to receive instructions from Earth to extract materials and build simple structures.

“In a sense, we are like farmers. We breed talent from these creatures, or a whole family of creatures, to accomplish certain tasks,” Thanga said. “By following this process, we are helping to perfect these man-made creatures whose job it is to perform mining tasks. “

The team still sees humans as an essential part of space exploration, but these robot swarms could allow astronauts to focus on other critical parts of the mission.

“The idea is for robots to build, set things up, and do all the dirty, boring, and dangerous things, so that astronauts can do the most interesting things,” Thanga said.

Students play a key role

Momayez and Thanga are not alone in their enthusiasm. One of the reasons they decided to pursue this business is that undergraduates are so interested in it.

“Every time I go out and talk about space exploration, there really is a storm of students excited about mining,” Thanga said. “Seeing all these inspired students to get involved was a huge motivation.”

The ASTEROIDS lab in Thanga runs a NASA-funded undergraduate research and education program, in which students spend a year leading their own research projects. In the past, students of the program have presented their work at conferences and worked on journal articles. With the new funding from NASA, Momayez and Thanga plan to add a module to the program focused on space mining. Students will experience both autonomous robot swarms and excavation techniques – in the classroom, in the lab, and even in the student-run San Xavier mine.

“They can mine their robots, they can dig, they can drill, they can blow up,” Momayez said. “And with the establishment of the new School of Mines and Mineral Resources, we hope to attract more students from all over the world involved in mining. “

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