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‘Robot swarms’ will build underground shelters on Mars

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It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. In one European team’s proposal for off-world construction, swarms of autonomous, cooperative robots would dig and reinforce underground ant-like colonies for human habitation on Mars.

The European Space Agency recently awarded a grant to a team of engineers at the Robotic Building lab at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands to study how robot swarms could build such structures.

This month, the founder and current leader of the lab, engineer Henriette Bier, posted some preliminary details of her team’s concept, which would use Zebro robots to excavate underground housing networks on the red planet, fortified with Martian, 3D-printed concrete.

The project is very much in the conceptual phase. Still, the technologies to make it possible are coming along on Earth, says Jekan Thanga, a robotics researcher not involved with the Delft team specializing in off-world technologies at the University of Arizona. But, he says, “Doing it off-world is another challenge.”

Mars has a host of dangers for future human explorers looking to reside there. From high levels of ionizing radiation to drastic day-to-night temperature swings, long-term residents will need more than a sturdy tent to live comfortably. Living several meters underground would block most of the radiation and provide a more stable temperature.

image depicting robot swarms on Mars building habitats

Amazon isn’t offering free shipping to Mars yet, so getting building supplies there is still highly pricey. Researchers are considering using locally sourced materials as much as possible to construct Martian habitats. 

The Zebro robots—also developed at Delft, with the footprint of just a sheet of paper—would excavate tunnels by spiraling downward and fortify the walls as they go with concrete. Tapping into what’s immediately abundant, the concrete could be made onsite by combining cement with excavated dust and rock. Some robots would dig while others reinforce walls with autonomously generated 3D-printed structures.

The proposed underground Martian habitat (left) was implemented with unconventional design shapes (bottom
right), using Zebro rovers (middle right), and relying on renewable energy generation (top right). Delft University of Technology

Bier’s team consists of her students and other robotics faculty at Delft. She says using 3D-printing technologies, she and her team “have been developing porous material designs, ” allowing for faster construction and more efficient use of materials. The empty pockets would also make for better insulation. On top of pure optimization, 3D printing allows for unconventional, versatile design shapes devised by artificial intelligence.

image depicting what it could look like if robot swarms built shelters on mars

Digging and building on unknown Martian terrain will “definitely be a challenge,” Bier says. The robots will have to adapt to a harsh and disordered terrain—but artificial intelligence could make this possible, she says. Swarms of robots are helpful because they can communicate with each other, do multiple tasks simultaneously, and keep functioning if one member becomes inoperable.

This is similar to the way termites work together. “They work in teams, yet, if you kill one individual … the team continues no problem,” Thanga says.

This project isn’t for the first wave of Martian settlers, who will likely need something more temporary and modular. Because these underground colonies would require concrete, the first order of business would be to build the infrastructure to produce concrete—preferably more robots. 

[Related: Some of Earth’s tiniest living things could survive on Mars]

NASA and other groups have looked at different potential shelters on Mars, Thanga says, including ideas for houses made from sandbags or ice. But deep underground structures provide a more permanent option and require little water—a precious resource on such a dry planet. 

Bier says that the construction industry is generally conservative, so it hasn’t seriously invested in new technologies like robotics or 3D-printed homes, which a few startups are working on. She points to ICON, which has built inexpensive concrete homes in just a few days and is looking at 3D-printing structures on the Moon. In 2019, NASA also hosted a 3D-printed habitat challenge in which teams competed to design sustainable housing designs for off-world living.

She hopes that furthering these technologies on Earth will lead to advances in off-world technology and that off-world technology could lead to further advances on Earth.

Adding in swarm technology could amplify these advances even further. Thanga says humans have been using the logic of swarm societies for thousands of years. A group of Roman soldiers could join in a turtle-like formation, covered by shields on all sides, to beat unorganized but similarly armed enemies. “They became invincible that way,” Thanga says. Perhaps robot swarms on Mars may one day be able to achieve similar feats.

In the quest to conquer the cosmos, the vision of establishing human colonies on Mars has captured our collective imagination. As we contemplate the challenges of settling on the Red Planet, innovative solutions are being explored, and one fascinating concept has emerged — the use of “robot swarms” to construct underground shelters for future Martian inhabitants.

The Martian Challenge: Mars, our neighboring planet, presents various formidable challenges for human habitation. Harsh radiation, extreme temperatures, and the thin atmosphere make life on the surface daunting. One solution gaining traction is building underground habitats that shield inhabitants from harsh external conditions.

Enter Robot Swarms: Here’s where the concept of robot swarms comes into play. Imagine a group of small, autonomous robots working in concert to excavate, construct, and reinforce underground structures. These robot swarms, equipped with advanced sensing, communication, and manipulation capabilities, could work tirelessly to create safe and habitable environments below the Martian surface.

Collaborative Construction: The key strength of robot swarms lies in their collaborative nature. Working together, these robots can distribute tasks efficiently, adapt to changing conditions, and optimize their efforts in real-time. By excavating and assembling materials, they could create underground shelters with precision and speed, reducing the need for extensive human labor and minimizing exposure to the harsh Martian environment.

Adaptability and Efficiency: One of the most exciting aspects of robot swarms is their ability to adapt to unforeseen challenges. On Mars, where conditions are unpredictable and remote troubleshooting is a challenge, the autonomy of these robots could prove invaluable. They can analyze data, make decisions, and modify actions based on immediate requirements, ensuring efficient progress even in dynamic environments.

Reducing Risk and Cost: Implementing robot swarms for constructing Martian shelters offers numerous advantages. Minimizing human involvement in the initial construction process significantly reduces the risk to human lives. Additionally, using robot swarms can reduce the costs of sending large crews and extensive construction equipment to Mars.

Beyond Mars: While the concept of robot swarms constructing underground shelters on Mars is captivating, its potential extends beyond planetary colonization. Similar technologies could be employed on Earth for disaster relief, remote infrastructure construction, and environmental rehabilitation. These versatile systems showcase the fusion of cutting-edge robotics, AI, and space exploration technology to address challenges on a global scale.

As we set our sights on the stars, the idea of robot swarms building underground shelters for humans on Mars is a testament to human ingenuity. While much research and development remain before such a vision becomes a reality, the prospect is inspiring. By harnessing the power of robotic collaboration, we may unlock the potential for a new era of exploration, pushing the boundaries of human presence in the cosmos and reshaping how we envision our place in the universe.

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3D printers, Mars, Robotics, Science, Space


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