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Moon-Excavation Robots Face Off

Soulskill posted about 5 years ago | from the can-you-dig-it dept.

Robotics 61

avishere writes "Student teams designed and built robotic power-lifters to excavate simulated lunar soil (a.k.a. 'regolith') earlier this month, with $750,000 in prizes up for grabs. Excavating regolith, according to NASA, will be an important part of any construction projects or processing of natural resources on the Moon. Interestingly, regolith is especially difficult to dig because its dust particles want to stick together. The whole robotic system has to be sturdy enough to scoop moon dirt and powerful enough to move through the dust while still meeting the weight requirements. The winning excavator, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, lifted 1,103 pounds within the allotted time, and got its creators a sweet $500,000 for their troubles."

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I can dig it. (-1, Redundant)

illumastorm (172101) | about 5 years ago | (#29934823)

Can you dig it?

I hear... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29934903)

Caterpillar aka. CAT machinery is pretty efficient at that.

Re:I hear... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935615)

Posting to undo moderation, sorry.

Re:I hear... (1)

Auraiken (862386) | about 5 years ago | (#29937591)

Also, if there is such a problem with dust particles sticking to things wouldn't it be slightly easier on the moon to charge a belt at one end and degauss on the other?

Maybe NASA is so 1960's (3, Insightful)

kurt555gs (309278) | about 5 years ago | (#29934909)

I am wondering if the money being spent on a manned space program is just wasted. With the davances in robotics, we could be scooping up Martian soil, Europan ice, and goo from Saturn's moons and bringing it home for a fraction of putting a man on Mars.

Unless we get volunteers for a one way manned Martian mission, I think the money should be put into advanced robot probes.

 

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (2, Insightful)

khallow (566160) | about 5 years ago | (#29934959)

Manned space effort is based on the premise that there will be a sizable number of people living or visiting in space in the not so distant future (within say 50 years). If true, useful manned space efforts now would position the US for a competitive advantage.

within 50 years (1)

zogger (617870) | about 5 years ago | (#29936341)

That's exactly what we all thought in 1969....

Re:within 50 years (1)

khallow (566160) | about 5 years ago | (#29936405)

And we might have been right.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (1)

lennier (44736) | about 5 years ago | (#29946812)

"Manned space effort is based on the premise that there will be a sizable number of people living or visiting in space in the not so distant future (within say 50 years)."

Right, that's the vision of the Space!Future! I was sold as a kid in the 1970s. And I thought it must be true, because Scientists were saying so.

But one important bit was left out. What will all those people be *doing* that can't be done cheaper either on Earth, or by robots?

Doing Science? Uh-huh. That would have to mean 'astronomy'. Who pays, and how many billions can you justify to get a few more pixels over the Hubble?
Mining? For what, and how do you stop those rocks from being used as weapons?
Helium-3? We need basic fusion first before we even think about clean fusion.
Military? We already have nukes and spysats. The gap is on the ground, not in orbit.
Solar power sats? We could teleoperate repair robots with a second or so delay.

I can see how 'lots of people in space' made sense in the days before computers. It would have been the only way to achieve strategic military objectives, which were a bottomless source of funding. But now... why?

Without warp drive, there's just nothing out there. And we're not allowed to talk about warp drive. Einstein forbids it (blessed be Einstein).

The Space Age is over. It was over before most of us were born. It never really even existed in the sense in which it was sold.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29959612)

Without warp drive, there's just nothing out there. And we're not allowed to talk about warp drive. Einstein forbids it (blessed be Einstein).

NOTHING?!?!? There's a whole freaking solar system with several planets and at least hundreds of thousands of planetoids out there that could be utilized by human civilization without any FLT at all. Maybe we won't be gallivanting across the galaxy, but if you want to even maintain the technological development you'll have to get some resources from extraterrestrial sources, for example rare earth elements are becoming increasingly useful in consumer grade devices. While it may never make economic sense to mine silicon or iron from an asteroid, palladium or platinum is another matter.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (3, Insightful)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | about 5 years ago | (#29934993)

I am wondering if the money being spent on a manned space program is just wasted. With the davances in robotics, we could be scooping up Martian soil, Europan ice, and goo from Saturn's moons and bringing it home for a fraction of putting a man on Mars.

These are not, or shouldn't be, mutually exclusive. Clearly picking up a sample of Martian soil and bringing it back to Earth is going to prove out some technologies that are useful for human missions.

Robots and humans can, and should, work together. But, ultimately, it's not about the robots-- it's about us. The goal should be extending our civilization out beyond the Earth.

(...and, in a final comment, let me note that you may be vastly optimistic about how hard it is to return samples from the Jupiter and Saturn systems. These are some very very difficult missions.)

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (1)

Redwing (311189) | about 5 years ago | (#29935003)

I suspect that if anyone asked for such volunteers, they would be plentiful.
Before I had kids, I would have been first in line.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (1)

dontmakemethink (1186169) | about 5 years ago | (#29937837)

I suspect that if anyone asked for ill-qualified volunteers, they would be plentiful.

Fixed that for you, emphasis mine.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29959820)

I suspect that if anyone asked for ill-qualified volunteers, they would be plentiful.

Fixed that for you, emphasis mine.

So will just make up for the lack of quality with volume, like most colonization attempts, it should work-out in the end. Or do you really think the 16th to 17th century European powers tried to send their best and brightest, rather than anyone they thought were expendable, to the New World?

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (2, Insightful)

Bat Country (829565) | about 5 years ago | (#29935021)

Unless we get volunteers for a one way manned Martian mission, I think the money should be put into advanced robot probes.

We won't get any unless we start asking for some and putting up the money to make it a reality.

What good would volunteering now do, when they'll tell you you ought to be ready to roll in 2020? If you're, say, 40 now, in pretty good health, feel like you've accomplished a lot on earth and are ready to cast yourself away to the depths of space never again to see mother earth except via video camera so you decide to volunteer for a one-way mission to build the first Martian colony, then you're told, "OK great, sign here, see you in 10-15 years," that's not exactly productive. In 15 years you'll be 55, might have developed all sorts of health problems which didn't bother you when you were younger and what had seemed like a good amount of time in good health to produce a colony (say, 25 years of good health and another 15-20 of passable health barring cancer or heart problems due to damage) has shrunk to a lot less time.

We'll get volunteers - there's absolutely no doubt of that. We just need to build the mission. If you could launch next month, you could find at least 30 academics, scientists and good old fashioned laborers who would sign up just for the shot at making human history who would have their bags packed in half a day and be asking for their airline ticket to Cape Canaveral.

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (1)

CrimsonAvenger (580665) | about 5 years ago | (#29937793)

We'll get volunteers - there's absolutely no doubt of that. We just need to build the mission. If you could launch next month, you could find at least 30 academics, scientists and good old fashioned laborers who would sign up just for the shot at making human history who would have their bags packed in half a day and be asking for their airline ticket to Cape Canaveral.

Including me. I'd do it as a labourer, if that was the only option. and I'd be on the highway toward Canaveral in 45 minutes....

Re:Maybe NASA is so 1960's (1)

R3d M3rcury (871886) | about 5 years ago | (#29938933)

Dunno.

Moon rocks returned by Apollo manned missions: 382kg
Moon rocks returned by Soviet robot missions: 0.326 kg

So they cost less but they return less.

There's also the argument that, assuming a geologist is collecting them, you'll end up with better "quality" rocks than an automated mission could return.

Lunar lander challenge (1)

Geoffrey.landis (926948) | about 5 years ago | (#29934963)

The moon challenge is cool-- and it's great to see students compete (this is something we really need)-- but what I really love is the lunar lander challenge (also previously featured on /.). Seeing videos like this one [htttp] just thrill me. The real problem with spaceflight has been that some time back in the '50s it moved the ability of individuals and small groups to participate in, and I just love that idea that real experimental rocketry is coming back.

Rocket Ship Galileo, let's do it!

Re:Lunar lander challenge (2, Informative)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935005)

there, fixed [youtube.com] it

It makes you wonder.. (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29934967)

How fast could a beowulf cluster of our regolith shifting overloads shovel hot grits into Natalie Portman's pants?

And does it run Linux?

Team Tennessee (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935041)

An honorable mention was given to a moon walking redneck with a shovel and a fish bowl on his head. Although the entry wasn't a true robot and was disqualified they felt the idea of sending him to the Moon had merit so he was given the special award and encouraged to keep trying to make it to the Moon.

Moon Carbon Credits. (3, Funny)

cosm (1072588) | about 5 years ago | (#29935049)

But what about moon-riot control? Hopefully those lifter-bots are programmed with empathy towards the moon-hippies that chain themselves to their moon rocks. I wonder if there will be an Earth movement along the lines of, well, I guess, 'Grey-Peace' moon hippies against what ever strip-mine ore acquiring process that is eventually developed.

If a Molotov cocktail is thrown in space, does it make a noise?

Only Al Gore will know.

Re:Moon Carbon Credits. (3, Funny)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935127)

Dear Mr./Mrs. cosm,

On behalf of the Society for the Advancement of Humour through Awkward Reframing, I'd like to convey our admiration for your tenacious and comprehensive example of this not so fine art. We'd be pleased to have you as an Honorary Member.

Re:Moon Carbon Credits. (1)

cosm (1072588) | about 5 years ago | (#29935291)

Dear Mr./Mrs. aeielCo, On behalf of the Society for My Foot In Your Ass, I cordially accept your invitation. When and where can I express my gratitude, kind liaison?

Re:Moon Carbon Credits. (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935547)

You may visit us any sunny Saturday morning to PeaceMan Bldg, corner of LightenUp & TakeAJoke. Utopia City, NW. :)

Re:Moon Carbon Credits. (1)

cosm (1072588) | about 5 years ago | (#29936057)

I'll be sure to bring cupcakes and a chainsaw.

Re:Moon Carbon Credits. (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29938017)

cupcakes and a chainsaw

TIP: it's easier to dunk them in your tea instead.

something missing (4, Insightful)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935091)

There's no mention of the additional challenge presented by the mechanical properties of lunar regolith [wikipedia.org] . Since there's no wind or liquid water, the grains of "sand" have been formed only by breaking up larger pebbles [wikipedia.org] and have not been eroded since, so they're rather jagged and very abrasive.

In other words, imagine your garden-variety backhoe or skid loader digging through finely ground glass - you'll pray to @DEITIES for its gaskets and bearings.

Re:something missing (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935311)

Nature handles this by putting a protective skin over the internal organs. A similar approach avoids the issue. A four or more legged walker with digging arms with a flexible outer skin would work well. It doesn't have to be rubber just have give like mylar. Most of the approaches I've seen ignore the dust issue and go for traditional exposed mechanics. Even if breaches happened it'd still keep out the bulk of the dust.

Re:something missing (1)

Gerafix (1028986) | about 5 years ago | (#29935389)

Perhaps putting an adhesive over the protective layer would allow the regolith to attach itself creating a natural barrier helping prevent further erosion.

Re:something missing (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935729)

Good one. One small issue: all designs would have to forfeit anything that spins as its business-end, much like whales don't have propellers. Still, there are alternatives, and you may look at living sand-diggers for clues. You still need something hard for "claws" and a pretty resistant skin, perhaps with scales where it's closer to the action.

Bigger issue: the reactions of politicians / taxpayers when you show them your design for a robotic mole / lizard.

Re:something missing (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 5 years ago | (#29936045)

Not necessarily. Imagine two nesting cylinders. Line the inner surface of the outer cylinder with bristles. Cut a screw pattern on the outside of the inner cylinder. As the inner cylinder turns within the outer, any particles that make it in will be carried back out by the screw. There may also be electrostatic means of keeping the regolith out.

Re:something missing (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29937463)

What I meant was that anything enclosed by a skin cannot have rotating parts, by the same reasons living critters don't have any.

As for the cylinders with bristles I figure those would be protective devices at the "out" sides of a traditional bearing which will handle the load (the bristles would be mashed otherwise). Kind of a self-cleaning gasket. Good one - from my limited perspective :)

Re:something missing (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 5 years ago | (#29938323)

What I meant was that anything enclosed by a skin cannot have rotating parts...

Ah... Yes, of course.

Although... If you had a flexible skin, you could have a part that rotates, a number of times one way, then reverses and rotates the opposite way. You just couldn't have a continuous rotating part.

Re:something missing (2, Insightful)

khallow (566160) | about 5 years ago | (#29935403)

I think this is overrated. As the other replier noted, you can protect the delicate parts of your machine. You can also maintain it (eg, clean and oil on a frequent basis the relevant parts). It's merely another engineering problem and I see no reason that the issue has to be addressed in this stage of technology development.

Re:something missing (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935589)

I think this is overrated.

Aw, there goes my Nobel. ;) Okay, I was actually shooting for a "3, Interesting" at most.

As the other replier noted, you can protect the delicate parts of your machine.

Yup - gaskets, flexible boots and such. But they have limited effectiveness since there's some sliding action exposed to the nasty elements.

You can also maintain it (eg, clean and oil on a frequent basis the relevant parts).

Are they sending a maintenance bot along with it? I expect this to be deployed initially as a prospector robot - likely the Lunokhod [wikipedia.org] chaps gave it a lot of thought.

It's merely another engineering problem and I see no reason that the issue has to be addressed in this stage of technology development.

True dat - self-maintenance probably wasn't a part of this challenge. But sure as hell it will have to be addressed before we send the first titanium-digger on its own out there.

Re:something missing (1)

khallow (566160) | about 5 years ago | (#29935699)

But sure as hell it will have to be addressed before we send the first titanium-digger on its own out there.

I agree. My point though is that these incremental contests can't cover everything at once, otherwise they wouldn't be incremental. And you sure couldn't offer just $500k to demonstrate a digger on the Moon capable of say, six months of activity.

Re:something missing (3, Insightful)

John Hasler (414242) | about 5 years ago | (#29935715)

> Yup - gaskets, flexible boots and such. But they have limited effectiveness > since there's some sliding action exposed to the nasty elements.

There doesn't have to be except at the wheels.

Gas jets could be used to blow seals clear. Shouldn't take much gas. Or maybe positive pressure on the inside of each seal and a very slightly leaky seal so that there is a constant outward flow of gas or lubricant when the bearing is in motion to carry contaminants away.

A search for "self cleaning seals" gets lots of hits.

Re:something missing (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935829)

Yup, I thought of that too but I didn't post it to keep it short ;) I wonder about a long-term source of gas out there, but it can be finite too. Take a look at this thought [slashdot.org] (too bad posts by ACs rarely get modded up).

earth is not the moon (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29937831)

It might not be that easy. Static makes that dust stick, plus it is also flowing constantly, meaning that it just keeps trying to accumulate even as you are attempting to blow it off. You'd have to figure out something to counteract that, gas jets might not be enough. The Apollo astronauts noted it got everywhere as soon as the hatch opened.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_soil#Moon_fountains_and_electrostatic_levitation [wikipedia.org]

Although these levitating jets seem to open up an area for exploration into alternative power sources.

I think eventually they'll be forced to provide flexible coverings for all outside moving surfaces, as in no exposed joints at all, and just accept parasitic fast wear-out of those that have to be exposed, the wheels and axles, etc. All the vehicles will need to be skinned as much as possible, not bare bones moon buggy looking. That works short term, but I really doubt it for extensive colonization and construction/working/mining.. That's going to require some serious advances in materials science, flexible and tough stuff that will work from -OMG that's freekin' cold, to +EgadsBoiling temps.

The next step... (3, Interesting)

Baron_Yam (643147) | about 5 years ago | (#29935093)

Regardless of the speed and mass abilities of the excavators, I'd be interested in seeing a system that can excavate, process, and create something from simulated regolith in a high-static, near-vacuum environment.

Specifically, I recall seeing articles about how it might be easy to create low-efficiency solar cells and a form of concrete from regolith.

Assuming that works, I'd like to see a 'bot that can dig up some regolith, make a concrete igloo big enough to be useful, and cover it and the surroundings with solar cells. I suppose we're decades away from that...

Re:The next step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935413)

I'd rather see a robot that can make low-efficiency solar cells and a form of concrete from sand in the Sahara.

Re:The next step... (1)

Baron_Yam (643147) | about 5 years ago | (#29935523)

And I'd rather see a robot that looks like Angelina Jolie and does whatever I want.

Re:The next step... (1)

Hybrid-brain (1478551) | about 5 years ago | (#29935779)

can't get a real woman can you.

Re:The next step... (1)

Baron_Yam (643147) | about 5 years ago | (#29935809)

I'm married so... no, she won't let me!

Re:The next step... (1)

arielCo (995647) | about 5 years ago | (#29935655)

I'd rather see a robot that can make low-efficiency solar cells and a form of concrete from sand in the Sahara.

Umm, I think I get your point. Yes, I'd rather put the dollars and brainpower towards solving a lot of remaining problems here at home rather than sending bots out there to dig out whatever valuable minerals are there, just to have cheaper LCDs and mobile phones. There's a lot to be said for beating rockets into plowshares.

Re:The next step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935771)

Machine 1 digs and "digests", cans the useful (water, H3) poops out redi-mix.
Machine 2 eats redi-mix and poops out bricks.
Machine 3 is essentially a mobile "pick and place" robot with brick gathering and igloo building programs.

These function semi-autonomously and are remotely operated form Earth. You send them well in advance of your "colonists". Imagine how much better the Pilgrims would have fared if upon arrival at Plymouth there was a great big stack of 2x4's and nails ready and waiting.

Re:The next step... (1)

camperdave (969942) | about 5 years ago | (#29935877)

Imagine how much better the Pilgrims would have fared if upon arrival at Plymouth there was a great big stack of 2x4's and nails ready and waiting.

Yes, they might have been able to establish a permanent settlement, and from there, spread out across the continent.

Re:The next step... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29936389)

Maybe half of them would not have died in thier 1st winter there.

1000 years of darkness winding down? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935107)

hang on, to your belief system, should it be working thus far?

Buncha (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935129)

Buncha ugly dirt-shoveling heaps of metals.

I read this as (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935287)

"Moon excavation robots rip their face off"

Which would have been a much more fun way of competing.

We need to use Dwarves in space suits (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29935349)

The dwarves at Dwarf Fortress [bay12games.com] are fairly efficient and can be remotely controlled from already existing software!

Units - fixed (1)

justthinkit (954982) | about 5 years ago | (#29936195)

The winning excavator from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts lifted 500 kilograms [answers.com] within the allotted time.

[The article lists all weights in kilograms]

Moon colonization (1)

fadethepolice (689344) | about 5 years ago | (#29939811)

A self-suffiicient moon colony is our first step towards ensuring our survival in case of an environmental catastrophe on earth. To me, this goal would be most efficiently advanced by an autonomous excavation device that could dig us a moon colony that by being underground would effiiciently protect us against cosmic rays. The design of this colony could be further refined after stage 1 colonization to make it self - sufficient. Placing this colony in an area of the moon just over the border of the sunlit area would teach us how to extrapolate this type of colony to the deeper reaches of the solar system, but if a hydro rich area could be found on the side of the moon facing the earth the safety advantage of that location would be more important for us to start a colony. In short a device that could efficiently bore out underground rooms for humanity on the moon is absolutely necessary for us to colonize not only the moon but most other bodies in the solar system. This project should receive a high priority in the funding equation.

1,103 "pounds"? (1)

Rogerborg (306625) | about 5 years ago | (#29942804)

Earth pounds or lunar pounds? Seriously, when are NASA going to stop dicking around with English units and switch to Metric - like the English use.

Re:1,103 "pounds"? (1)

thickdiick (1663057) | about 5 years ago | (#29964860)

1103 lbs = 4 906 newtons As much as i like kilograms, newtons just don't speak to me like pounds or kilograms do.

Moon! (1)

lennier (44736) | about 5 years ago | (#29944806)

Now we just need a Sam Bell. And a GERTY

Shredded diamonds (1)

Mr. Freeman (933986) | about 5 years ago | (#29945586)

"regolith is especially difficult to dig because its dust particles want to stick together"

This is not why it's difficult to dig. Regolith is the exact same dust and sand that you see here on earth...before it was broken down by mechanical weathering. You start with rock, big rocks. Over time these break down into smaller and smaller rocks and then finally you get sand like you'd find on a beach. On the moon you have amazingly sharp, tiny rocks. This is because there's no process to weather them down into smooth particles. Thus, you end up with what basically amounts to crushed diamonds. They're sharp, jagged, tiny rocks.

This makes particles "lock" together when you step on them and such. This is why the footprints from the first moon landing are visible. It's very crisp and detailed because the regolith "locks" or meshes together so well. It didn't move since then because there's no wind, rain, etc. to destroy it. But the particles do not "stick together" as if they were all made of magnets or something, as the summary implies.

The reason it's hard to dig is because it literally shreds anything you put up there. Sand in a bearing here on earth is difficult enough to deal with. Now imagine hard, very, very, sharp sand. Basically, the difference between a rock in your shoe and a razor blade. You can't wash this stuff off (you're on the fucking moon), and it gets EVERYWHERE and on EVERYTHING. Keeping regolith off a robot is like trying to jump in the ocean without getting wet.

The consequence of this is obviously that anything you send to the moon is going to last a lot shorter than it will here on earth. Here on earth you fix something when it breaks. You take your car to the mechanic and they take out their tools, replace broken parts, fix others, etc. But this is on the moon. To fix something there you'd have to fly up spare parts, tools, and the labor. This labor requires either power (robots) in which case you need a lot of electricity, or power and air, food, water, shelter (humans), in which case you're flying a lot of shit up to the moon just to fix a couple robots.

It's all an amazingly large pain in the ass, but none of it is because the regolith "sticks together" is all because it "shreds fucking everything".

Re:Shredded diamonds (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29966932)

That was an amazingly calm, reasoned, well thought out, intelligent comment. What the hell are you doing on Slashdot?
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