How Robots Built for Mars Can Improve Robots Built for Earth
Innovations from space research often find a use back on Earth (can we offer anyone a glass of Tang?). At Motiv Space Systems we design robotic systems for space. But in the course of figuring things out, we’ve come across a few things that could improve robots here on earth.
Motiv’s co-founder Tom McCarthy sat down with Dr. David Livingston on The Space Show podcast. One of Livingston’s first questions was whether robots that are already well-established in their terrestrial uses – from medical robots performing microsurgery to large-scale welding robots on an automotive assembly line – could take their talents to space, the moon, or Mars.
If humans plan on having a long-term presence in space, Livingston reasoned, they’re going to want robots to do many – maybe more – of the jobs, they already do here, from medicine to construction. Could someone go up to space take along one of their robot co-workers?
“Not without a lot of modification“, McCarthy said. “Those robots, even though they are capable on earth, could never fly to Mars. They’re too heavy – they’re so big, so heavy. The cost of mass in flight is very expensive.”
Keeping things light and compact is one set of constraints. Another is energy expenditure. Being a geologist is only one part of Perseverance’s job description. Every component on the rover – from communications to movement to other data gathering equipment – draws from the same power supply. They all have to share, and there’s only so much to go around.
McCarthy praises NASA for continually updating the mission profile and the “selection set” of materials and capabilities. It’s then up to the Motiv team to deliver a robot with maximum performance (1) within those boundaries.
Perseverance’s robotic arm has a mass of 76 kg, can carry a payload of 45 kg and is millimeter accurate. It has the ability to operate at -135 C amidst Martian levels of radiation and dust.
Similarly, Motiv’s COLDArm will handle temperatures (2) in the range of -180 C without a heating source. The technology to make that happen will ultimately free up resources on whatever vehicle deploys it on the moon.
These robotic systems, precisely designed for their mission sets, are over-engineered for earthly purposes. Terrestrial robots can be as heavy and large as we want them to be (within some limits), and have the benefit of reliable and plentiful power supplies. But in developing new technologies under such tight constraints, you can’t help but find applications for terrestrial robots.
“There’s a healthy ecosystem between what we’ve created in our terrestrial systems and our space systems,” McCarthy said. “We will learn something in one of those domains and realize we can transfer that technique into one of our other systems”.
“For example, for the robotic arm we developed for the Mars Perseverance (3) rover, we had to create a new force-torque sensor in order to provide a sensing system at the end of the arm so it has a sense of touch. In the course of doing that, we developed additional techniques and realized we could build custom shapes and sizes, suitable for different applications, that we could put into our industrial robots.”
“By going through the process of developing something for space, it turned the light bulb on for us about different ways we could approach those techniques for things that could be used in the terrestrial environment.”
When humans establish themselves on Mars, Mars might become the center of the Martian robotic industry. Instead of designing and building robots on Earth to make the long trip up, future generations of robots will be from Mars, for Mars.
Perhaps someone will ask us then “Could a robot born and bred on Mars have a useful application on Earth?” Our current experience with technology transfer tells us yes. We just can’t wait to discover what they are.
Listen to the full interview below
Tom’s interview with Dr. David Livingston refers to several Motiv Space Systems missions and projects. Here are links to learn about the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm (COLDArm), and our custom space robotics.