From the James Webb Space Telescope discovering thousands of new galaxies more distant and ancient than previously documented to Mars rovers tracing evidence of ancient lakes on the red planet, humanity’s understanding of space is expanding at a rapid pace.
Beyond sparking the imagination of where space exploration may take us in the future – such as human habitation on the Moon and Mars or accelerating the energy transition with critical minerals mined in space – this knowledge is inspiring engineers to design the tools that will enable us to take next steps.
At Polytechnique Montréal, research teams have turned their attention to enlisting space-worthy robotic systems in the quest to go further and deeper: into the ground and into caves.
Into the ground
As the closest cosmic body to Earth, the Moon has long been investigated for its potential for human habitation and resource development, with most insights coming from exploration tools that focus on surface scanning.
A desire to “dig deeper” led Pooneh Maghoul, associate professor, Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering, to design and test tools for exploring beneath the surface.
“What we know about the geology of the Moon is all about the surface. Going deeper represents an important step for getting an idea about the composition of the ground,” explains Dr. Maghoul. Beyond learning whether the Moon’s soil is porous or hard, and whether the ground is stable enough to support structures, below-surface investigations can also yield insights on valuable resources: ice and minerals.
“We need more and more resources to tackle climate change, including critical minerals and rare earth metals, and extracting them from the Earth brings its own challenges,” she says. “Why not look for sources in space, for example, asteroids or the Moon?”
The aim of Dr. Maghoul’s research is in situ resource utilization in space, yet the ideas for designing tools came from closer to home. “We can find lots of inspiration in nature,” she notes. “For our work on energy-efficient robotic systems able to penetrate the ground, we were inspired by the movement of snakes when they burrow into sand.”
In desert habitats, some snakes employ rapid cycles of contraction and stretching that achieve a displacement of soil as well as break down larger particles into smaller pieces. Dr. Maghoul and her team set out to create devices that mimic this locomotion.
The result is a robotic system with components that, through an electric current, vibrate at high frequencies, close to ultrasound-wave territory. What’s more, the system can adapt its frequencies to the type of soil it encounters to enhance functionality even in very dense soil.
Dr. Pooneh Maghoul
"We need more and more resources to tackle climate change, including critical minerals and rare earth metals, and extracting them from the Earth brings its own challenges. Why not look for sources in space, for example, asteroids or the Moon?
Associate Professor, Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering
The head of the device is equipped with a set of sensors for geophysical and geometallurgical analysis to provide two important insights. One, to get an idea of where the ground is suitable for building lunar infrastructure, such as a lunar base, roads, launching and landing pads, or a solar power generation plant, she explains. “We need to investigate what type of foundation would be suitable, and where the ground is good enough to support this infrastructure.”
The second purpose is to locate resources, says Dr. Maghoul. “Looking at the chemical and metallurgical composition of the ground can tell us whether there are critical minerals or rare earth metals present.”
What makes the team’s invention different from similar tools – used, for example, in mineral exploration on Earth – is its size. With a length of 30 to 50 centimetres and weight of less than five kilograms (including the batteries located at the “tail”), it addresses one of the biggest challenges in space exploration: mass and volume restriction.
“Bringing one kilogram of materials to the Moon’s surface would cost roughly $1-million,” she says. “So we had to design compact, light-weight and energy-efficient systems.”
While these attributes are prerequisite for deploying the devices in space, they also make them useful for projects on Earth, and the innovation is well on its way to commercialization, with a patent in place and a proof-of-concept study completed, reports Dr. Maghoul. “We are now at the stage of starting marketing.”
Beyond developing capabilities for below-ground exploration, researchers at Polytechnique Montréal are working on systems that enable forays into caves, which is seen as priority for space organizations keen on establishing bases on the Moon and on Mars.
“Our main objective is to explore caves on the Moon and Mars,” says Giovanni Beltrame, full professor in the Department of Computer and Software Engineering, whose team is carrying out a series of experiments with exploration-focused robots. “Why are we interested in caves? Fundamentally, caves are the best places to establish a base, since they provide radiation shielding – and an environment that can easily be reinforced and made safe for astronauts.”
In addition, caves attract scientific interest because they can provide insights about geology. Long considered essential for extraterrestrial exploration, robots deployed in space are fairly advanced yet face a number of limitations that Dr. Beltrame and his team are seeking to address.
“In addition to being very expensive, these robots are limited in their movements and typically rely on being connected to orbiting satellites,” he says. “That’s why you wouldn’t want to send them into a cave, where transmission signals may be blocked and uneven surfaces present a challenge. You could lose connection and, if the robot doesn’t come back out, you wouldn’t know why.”
Deploying a fleet of robots would address these concerns and essentially “multiply exploration capabilities,” suggests Dr. Beltrame, who is a former microelectronics engineer at the European Space Agency and the current director at Polytechnique Montréal’s Making Innovative Space Technology (MIST) laboratory, where multi-robot systems are under investigation.
“Multiple robots can relay information from one to another – and then to a rover or a base station outside, from where it can be transmitted to satellites and to Earth,” he says, adding that having smaller robots working together can help to cover larger areas in shorter periods of time and better manage risks.
However, getting robots to communicate and collaborate is no easy task, with research teams focusing their attention on aspects like perception and navigation, co-ordination, decision-making and energy maintenance, says Dr. Beltrame. “We’ve recently done a lot of work on perception, allowing the robot to know where it is, where it’s going and what is around it. This information is key to functioning in difficult environments like caves, where it’s dark and you have varied terrain.”
Enhancing the robots’ navigation capabilities are LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) systems, which use light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges. Through combining data from different sources, the quality of the information – and a resulting three-dimensional map – can be enhanced.
Robots can also warn one another away from risky areas, and Dr. Beltrame mentions a paper about these efforts titled DORA (Distributed Online Risk Aware) explorer. “We developed a system that allows robots to talk to each other. They exchange information, which is then relayed to an operator.”
Another challenge is to allow the operator to not just receive information but to act on it, and Dr. Beltrame’s team is testing several types of interfaces that could potentially enable such interactions “without exceeding the cognitive capacity of the operator.”
From calibrating operators to enhancing sensing capabilities and looking how “swarm intelligence” can enable robots to collectively solve problems by forming advantageous structures and behaviours similar to the ones observed in natural systems, the research at MIST has already attracted the attention of a range of stakeholders, space agencies among them.
Testing and applications on Earth
From devices capable of burrowing into the ground to multiple robots exploring caves as a team, the technology advances realized at Polytechnique Montréal hold answers to a range of challenges, both in space and on Earth.
Dr. Beltrame and his team, for example, are planning to test their multi-robot system in an upcoming cave exploration expedition. “We’re going to Mexico to map an unexplored cave system with a depth of at least 500 metres,” he says, adding that in this particular case, human speleologists will collect information alongside their robotic counterparts.
While such missions allow the testing of various components of robotic systems, including operator interface, co-ordination and communication, “the upcoming demonstration will be focused on mapping aspects,” says Dr. Beltrame.
Beyond cave exploration, multi-robot systems could also be helpful in search and rescue operations. Disaster response is also an area where Dr. Maghoul’s work can make a difference.
“Ground assessments can be helpful for gauging the damage from an earthquake, for example. Our robotic system can also be useful for infrastructure asset management, such as monitoring pipelines and dams. We have lots of potential applications in many areas of civil engineering, especially for work in areas that are remote,” says Dr. Maghoul.
“But our dream is to use our systems for space exploration.”
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