Engineers Turn to an Autonomous Robot Swarm to Mine Lunar Resources

A team of researchers has launched a new idea to advance space-mining methods with autonomous robot swarms.

Autonomous robot swarms

Autonomous robot swarms

As the concept of space mining is growing in popularity, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering has launched a new idea to advance space-mining methods with autonomous robot swarms. The project received $500,000 in NASA funding, and the university received the funding through NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project Space Technology Artemis Research Initiative to develop a swarm of robots able to mine, dig out and even form simple structures on the surface of our world’s natural satellite. 

Taking into account the distance between Earth and the moon is about 85 times greater, and that getting there requires ignoring gravity, using the moon’s existing resources is a captivating idea. 

According to the Giant Impact Hypothesis, scientists expect the chemical compositions between earth and moon to be relatively similar as they came from a common parent body.  Rare earth metals can be extracted by mining the moon’s surface, and these are used in technologies like smartphones and medical equipment. These metals include titanium, precious metals like gold and platinum, and helium-3, which is a stable helium isotope that is extremely rare on Earth. Helium-3 could be used to fuel nuclear power plants.

To mine for ore embedded in the rock on Earth, miners need to drill through the rock, which is one of Momayez’s specialties. He’s developed an electrochemical process to drill through rock five times faster than any other method. However, lunar mining is even more challenging. 

“Here on Earth, we have an unlimited amount of energy to throw at breaking rocks,” said Momayez. “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 through blasting, and nobody has ever set off a blast on the moon.”

 

What is an Autonomous Robot Swarm?

In swarm robotics, multiple robots collectively solve problems by creating dominant structures and behaviors similar to the ones observed in natural systems, such as swarms of bees, birds, or fish. Literature is light on real-world swarm applications that apply actual swarm algorithms. Typically, only parts of swarm algorithms are used which are referred to as basic swarm behaviors. Autonomous robot swarms can help humans find new ways to mine lunar materials from a laboratory space on Earth.

 

Autonomous Robot Swarms Powered by HEART

Robots can be constructed and trained on earth. The goal is to make the robots fully autonomous. So, at first, the robots will receive instructions from operators on this planet, and then they will carry out everything automatically without receiving any instructions from Earth to mine materials and construct simple structures.

The droids will use a learning model adapted by Jekan Thanga, University of Arizona (UA) associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, called the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System (HEART).  HEART will not only train the robots to perform mechanical tasks but will also gradually teach them to collaborate. The HEART system trains robots to work together on mining, excavation, and building tasks, and it enhances robots’ collaboration skills. 

“In a sense, we’re like farmers. We’re breeding talent out of these creatures, or a whole family of creatures, to do certain tasks,” Thanga said. “By going through this process, we help perfect these artificial creatures whose job it is to do the mining tasks.”

According to the team, the robots could free up time for astronauts, enabling them to focus their efforts on other exciting aspects of space exploration. 

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

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