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Robotics Space

Small Robots Could Build Landing Site For Moon Base 199

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the get-serious-about-moving-off-planet dept.
A new NASA-sponsored study suggests that small lawnmower-sized robots could be used to build a landing site for a moon outpost. In order to be efficient a landing pad would have to be close to any structures created, but without an atmosphere to slow down the lunar sand it would sandblast the outpost, creating the need for some sort of protection. By using small robots to either build protective berms or collect rocks to "pave" a landing pad, NASA hopes to provide protection against the sand-blasting effects of a landing on the moon.
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Small Robots Could Build Landing Site For Moon Base

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  • by MrEricSir (398214) on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:35PM (#27043425) Homepage

    Now I know how I'm gonna win that sand castle contest this year...

  • Yeah right? (Score:2, Insightful)

    If robots could be used in construction this complex, they already would. Right up here in Minnesota, there is a huge need for road repair and construction. If there was any way to automate the process more than it already is, it would be done by now. Any robot that could withstand the punishment of construction work would need to be very heavy, and also have a lot of redundancy built into it. It's one thing to make a little mini-rover with a camera and some sampling equipment. It's quite another to put a C

    • No hitchikers (Score:5, Insightful)

      by argent (18001) <peter@NOspaM.slashdot.2006.taronga.com> on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:43PM (#27043531) Homepage Journal

      No weather on the moon. No thieves. No vandals. No vegetation. No mud. 1/6th gee. No wind to blow piles of dirt away. It's a simpler environment to work in.

      Forget the construction work, could you build a rover that would last 90 days in Minnesota. just driving around photographing things?

      • Few worries of running over innocent civilians and being sued into oblivion...
      • by FudRucker (866063)
        no atmosphere to burn up or to slow/deflect meteors, those robots would be sitting ducks to the full force of meteor impacts, even marble sized meteors would be like shooting those robots with a high powered rifle...
      • by ByOhTek (1181381)

        no drivers to get pissed off if you have to close the area down for a year for instruction instead of 2 months.

        (i.e. The timetables on the moon don't need to be nearly as short as on earth, allowing for potentially slower problem solving).

        You don't have the fiscal cost of the land on the moon, and if the system is automated (or mostly automated), the workforce time will will be less costly as well.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      The equiment would need to be that robust on Earth because of how heavy the building materials will be, and because those materials themselves need to be hearty enough to last through the effects of our corrosive atmosphere and stresses induced by the refreezing of water. With 1/6th the gravity and no atmospheric conditions, construction on the moon could be no more than a polymer bag filled up with moon dust and coiled into a simple igloo. Aside from getting the parts there and automating them to run unm
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by HiThere (15173)

        I don't think you realize how drastically you are oversimplifying. The conditions are different, but not particularly easier. But competition from humans is nil, because humans need to carry life support. The equivalent for robots is much simpler. (Non-volatile greases, UV protection [i.e., no external plastic parts], etc.)

        Repair is probably going to be a problem. I expect that at least initially any non-functioning robot is going to need to be scrapped. But with care it's probable that many can be ke

        • Future settlements will still need radiation protection, which will still be the major environmental concern for future lunar inhabitants (Lunites?)

          Anyone remember how deep the soil base would need to be? Obviously without any atmosphere and magnetic shield cosmic rays and other high powered radiation will still penetrate the soil shield.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Of course I'm oversimplifying, it's an off the cuff comment on an internet message board. My main point is that its the dynamic conditions on Earth which cause the most harm, while on the moon many of those concerns are static (even static electricity, har har). Given a choice between the two, most engineers would rather solve the straightforward problem, with a well constrained range of variables, than the constantly shifting ones brought on by our climate.
      • No the moon really is a bad place to build stuff. Yes there are no storms or wind. But moon dust, unlike dust on Earth or even mars looks and cats like ground glass. The stuff gets into everything and is very abrasive. Anything that moves will not last long unless you figure a way to keep the dust away.

        Here on Earth crushed rock (sand) becomes rounded quickly. But not on the moon.

        • We managed pretty well for our first try [wikipedia.org]. The problems caused by the dust have already been factored into the design of unmanned lunar probes, and would certainly be one of the major considerations in the design of these UCV's (unmanned construction vehicles).
    • It depends... (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tjstork (137384)

      On just what the lunar soil is really like. We know a few bits from the various moon missions but its not like anyone tries to dig anything around up there. If the lunar soil was just a big pile of dust, then a robot pushing it around is rather doable. But if it had all sorts surprises in it, rocks, differences in composition that changes the way one digs, well then, the robots will run into problems.

    • Re:Yeah right? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by xonar (1069832) <xonar&smagno,com> on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:48PM (#27043599) Homepage

      ...If there was any way to automate the process more than it already is, it would be done by now.

      "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

      Sound familiar?

    • by TiggertheMad (556308) on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:50PM (#27043611) Homepage Journal
      If there was any way to automate the process more than it already is, it would be done by now.

      Do you have any concept of which you are speaking? Why on earth (lol) would you want to further automate road construction in Minnesota? Human labor on this planet is pretty cheap, even if it is unionized. When you have fly that labor to off word, hiring someone to scrub the great wall of china with a toothbrush is cheap in comparison.

      Robots don't need air, food, or water. They can work for long periods of time in utterly hostile environments with little to no supervision. They don't get sick or bored. They can be mass produced. When you are done with them, they don't want to go home. And, they have yet to rise up and try to enslave humanity, which is more than we can say for humanity.
      • by Daffy Duck (17350)

        Robots also don't experience fear, doubt, or vanity. Plus they need no fuel, no maintenance, and are impervious to physical damage.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 02, 2009 @03:08PM (#27043801)

          Robots also don't experience fear,

          Of course not

          doubt,

          Never!

          or vanity.

          It's not vanity; we are perfect.

          Signed,
          Your Hidden Robotic Overlords

          p.s.: get back to work, fleshy servitor, or we'll reassign you to pave our Lunar Base landing pads!

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Chris Burke (6130)

            p.s.: get back to work, fleshy servitor, or we'll reassign you to pave our Lunar Base landing pads!

            Geeze. So on the plus side, robots don't experience fear, doubt, or vanity. On the minus side, they are kinda dicks.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Tubal-Cain (1289912)

          Plus they need no fuel, no maintenance, and are impervious to physical damage.

          Excuse me?

          Fuel
          They don't put solar panels or RTGs on these things for the fun of it.

          Maintenance
          Spirit and Opportunity are doing well, but both have had various mechanical failures that are impedances.

          Impervious to physical damage
          No, just less fragile than humans in space.

      • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday March 02, 2009 @03:18PM (#27043905)

        Do you have any concept of which you are speaking?

        Minneapolis/St.Paul metropolitan area is rapidly becoming snarled in traffic jams. We've recently deployed a light-rail transit system, serving approximately a dozen stops. It was wildly successful and there are plans to expand it, with the next leg going over the recently rebuilt 35E bridge that (as you might recall) fell into the river a year ago. Our public transit system though, bluntly stated, has the suck. Really, unless your destination is downtown, or your transportation is within minneapolis/st.paul proper, you'll be spending hours riding and waiting. Which means that in Minnesota, as soon as you can afford it -- you buy a car. Insurance, by the way, is mandatory. We have a relatively high cost of living index as well. Not only that, but our traffic system is already being pushed beyond capacity. Experiments in "high occupancy vehicle lanes" to secure federal tax dollars have frustrated commuters because it's being used largely as a toll system for the upper-class to bypass traffic snarls, especially along 394 and the 35E (burnsville)->94(minneapolis) corridor.

        Why on earth (lol) would you want to further automate road construction in Minnesota? Human labor on this planet is pretty cheap, even if it is unionized.

        Presently, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has a budget of approximately 2.2 billion dollars per year. We just biffed a few hundred million on reconstructing a bridge that fell into the river (oops), so we're kinda tight on funding right now. There are redesigns planned for most major freeway/freeway interchanges inside the 694/494 beltway, and we are already at capacity -- with average commute times of over 45 minutes. The budget has grown annually perhaps 5-9%, while the usage patterns indicate at least 15-23% (depending on who you ask) rises over the same period. In short, we're not keeping up. Adding insult to injury -- unlike California where temperatures are relatively constant and weather-related road repairs are at a minimum, leading to highway lifespans of 50 years or more... Up here in Minnesota, we need to resurface the roads perhaps every 5-7 years, and rebuild them entirely every 20 years or so due to high temperature variations and constant humidity and weathering. Concrete roads, common throughout most of the country, are not used here except for overpasses and select areas because they fall apart too quickly under weather conditions -- necessitating the use of less-robust black-top. So our per-mile maintenance costs are higher. As well, unlike in other parts of the world, we have at least a third of the year in which we can't build roads -- because the ground is frozen!

        In short, labor is more expensive up here, the build times are shorter, the demand is rising faster than supply, and alternatives simply don't exist. Why robots? Because they can work at -40 temperatures, doing 16 hour shifts. Because human labor is damned expensive up here, and because automation means we can do more work for our dollars spent. That is, if such technology existed. But it doesn't. Every mile of road we build takes a team of twenty people working at least a couple days. And it's crap work that nobody wants to do, and only a small subset of the population is physically capable OF doing -- which is why, regardless of how well it pays, there's going to remain a shortage.

        • Why robots? Because they can work at -40 temperatures, doing 16 hour shifts.

          Except they can't, because apart from the fact that you're lucky to get 8 hours of sunshine in MN when it's -40 out, things like rain and snow and vandals and wind and mud and thieves that make your average human grumble in the pub after work bollix up robots completely.

          Every mile of road we build takes a team of twenty people working at least a couple days.

          You're building roads damn fast in MN.

          The robots we're talking about only ha

        • Every mile of road we build takes a team of twenty people working at least a couple days. And it's crap work that nobody wants to do, and only a small subset of the population is physically capable OF doing -- which is why, regardless of how well it pays, there's going to remain a shortage.

          I think you are missing the point. I really don't care what you advocate as a solution for road construction in Minnesota.

          The article is about robots building things on the moon. Your initial post suggested that hum
          • Your initial post suggested that humans would be a better choice, and you attempted to back your thesis with examples from Minnesota,

            Thesis is a big word for such a small idea, which is this: Humans can do it now. Robots cannot. It's unlikely given economic pressures already in place that robots will be created anytime soon to do this affordably. Therefore, humans are the best option because they can do it. Robots are a nice theoretical fluffy bunny.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Idiomatick (976696)
          Most of it IS done by robots. That giant tractor looking machine that resurfaces the road while it has a driver is 90% automated and makes the process MUCH faster than we could in past. There is no point in removing the rest of the crew because for the remaining jobs they do humans are still cheaper.
          • Very good point: the difference between a teleoperated robot and a piece of construction equipment is whether you need to include a heated cab or a bunch of cameras.

        • by HiThere (15173)

          In Minnesota robots are a bad choice. If you choose to go with non-human laborers (back-hoe, anyone) then non-automated equipment is currently much cheaper. Even if you go fully mechanized, telefactor operated + minimal local robotic control would be much cheaper. There's no problem with light-speed delaying reaction times when you are so local.

          N.B.: AFTER the robots have proven themselves on the moon, altered versions will start appearing on Earth. But paying for the development for use on Earth is si

      • "Robots don't need air, food, or water. They can work for long periods of time in utterly hostile environments with little to no supervision. They don't get sick or bored. They can be mass produced. When you are done with them, they don't want to go home. And, they have yet to rise up and try to enslave humanity, which is more than we can say for humanity."

        Wow... China when it was building the great wall must have confused people with robots. Thats probably why so many people died while they were building
      • by carvalhao (774969)
        "have yet to rise up and try to enslave humanity, which is more than we can say for humanity." Brilliant sentence!!! Can I quote you on that one?
      • by dissy (172727)

        Robots don't need air, food, or water. They can work for long periods of time in utterly hostile environments with little to no supervision. They don't get sick or bored. They can be mass produced. When you are done with them, they don't want to go home

        It's a machine, Schroeder. It doesn't get pissed off, it doesn't get happy, it doesn't get sad, it doesn't laugh at your jokes... ...IT JUST RUNS PROGRAMS!

    • So how much shielding is needed to protect humans from solar radiation on the surface of the moon? It might be easier to get the first few humans on the moon with prefab structures that simply set down, and allow humans to work beneath it. Look at the Bigelow space module. Something like that, with additional protection, could make for a fast settlement where humans can work with robots/tools to do the real heavy lifting (besides, things are a little less heavy on the moon).

      I think conventional construction

    • They've had rovers on Mars for several years now... a 3 hour tour turned long term expedition. All they need to do is the same thing.... with a shovel.

      The moon is closer, and gets the same sunlight as Earth versus less than half on Mars. Other than dealing with several weeks of dark when the moon faces earth there's not much difference as Mars has to shut down for "winter" when sunlight drops below enough to recharge the batteries.

      • They've had rovers on Mars for several years now... a 3 hour tour turned long term expedition. All they need to do is the same thing.... with a shovel.

        The moon is closer, and gets the same sunlight as Earth versus less than half on Mars. Other than dealing with several weeks of dark when the moon faces earth there's not much difference as Mars has to shut down for "winter" when sunlight drops below enough to recharge the batteries.

        Added advange on Luna: no weather to blow moondust and coat solar cells in dust. They'll stay mostly clean pretty much forever.

    • by mulvane (692631)
      Ever here of a grease pen? How about Tang?
    • If robots could be used in construction this complex, they already would. Right up here in Minnesota, there is a huge need for road repair and construction. If there was any way to automate the process more than it already is, it would be done by now. Any robot that could withstand the punishment of construction work would need to be very heavy, and also have a lot of redundancy built into it. It's one thing to make a little mini-rover with a camera and some sampling equipment. It's quite another to put a Caterpillar, cement truck, and support equipment up there, and expect it not to break. Sorry, but human beings need to be there... There are some things robots just can't do -- like repair themselves automatically. And I mean that in practical real-world terms, not in the laboratory.

      Build it on Earth first and make it work, then we'll talk about the moon.

      Think of this as a way to redistribute the wealth involved in those porkulus packages. After all, it's about creating jobs.

      Now, these things reside in their respective spheres. Developing robots to pave Earthbound roads is way more expensive than hiring some semi-skilled out-of-work guys to stand around while the two-lane highway is reduced to one-way traffic.

      However, developing something like this for the moon, where not much changes in the course of a day, makes sense.

      It also employs downsized engineers a

    • by HiThere (15173)

      I'm sure they *will* build it on Earth and make it work before they try it on Luna. But I have my doubts that they'll try it in Minnesota. That's not a very similar environment. White Sands, maybe.

      Also, note that construction on the moon can afford to pay much more per robot because the cost of humans is so extraordinarily high.

    • Just a Microwave unit that bakes say several feet of dirt into a harden unit should do the trick. Ideally, it would be on SLOW MOVING WHEELS, and have a lot of power available to it. That would allow it to slowly cook the ground underneath it. What would a unit like that weigh? Not that much. How about another scoop unit? Should not be that much. In the ideal situation, this is all put down on the moon about 3 years before our first landing. And it then builds up a pad, for landing on. As for here, on this
    • If there was any way to automate the process more than it already is, it would be done by now.

      Mmm... i get where you're coming from, but you assume rational forces making decisions based on logic. Instead, you have entrenched forces making decisions based on self-preservation, or greed, or plain buttheadedness.

      Consider the existing systems in place that benefit from road repair and construction; or, at least, have prioritized other expenditures - such as themselves - over same. Then too, who will research and develop these systems to a usable level? If a market is viewed as difficult to reach for

  • by DavidTC (10147) <slas45dxsvadiv@vadiv.neverbox@com> on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:36PM (#27043431) Homepage

    Why not use a crater wall? Put the landing strip on the outside, the base on the inside, and cut a tunnel? (And build a ramp over/around for the big stuff.)

    • by Plunky (929104)
      The crater wall might keep the sandworms out too!
    • That's fine for an eventual large scale project for a permanent lunar base. We're still in the small scale initial landings stage, using a fancy RV and a prefab as a base station. They want to protect the RV and the whatever prefab hab. they bring with them.
    • I think that is exactly what will happen. Small crater. Then use the microwave unit that I spoke about above. While some think that we will pop all over the place at first, that makes ZERO sense. Our first set up will be on the lunar poles. Period. We will be setting up in one or both poles to obtain Solar power. It is also certain that we will send several robotic missions there first to prepare the way. The reason is that we already know roughly what material is there, so no real need to pop all over. In
  • Just don't let the Chinese know where your moon base is going to be, they'll crash into it.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7917957.stm [bbc.co.uk]

  • MOON-E (Score:3, Funny)

    by MaxwellEdison (1368785) on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:39PM (#27043485)
    It's all well and good until a some half iPod, half egg timer robot swoops in and steals all the plants out of your greenhouse.
  • While I like the idea of manned exploration, I think sending in robots, or near autonomous robots first is a good idea. For tasks like this they have great advantages of more simple life sort. I envision a large roomba. [amazon.com] PS. It was hard not to just post "Cylons were created by man . . ."
  • by oodaloop (1229816) on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:45PM (#27043547)
    Sheesh. How about a standard unit of measurement here, like Volkswagen Beetles or African male elephants or telephone directories? Tell me they at least expressed their hard drive size in multiples of Libraries of Congress.
  • I would not want the landing pad right next to the outpost unless you have achieved the impossible with 100% error/malfunction free operation of the lander vehicle hardware and software, eliminate human error, and have assassinated Murphy.

  • Crater (Score:5, Funny)

    by flyingfsck (986395) on Monday March 02, 2009 @02:55PM (#27043671)
    I think constructing berms and such is redundant. After a few typical NASA landing attempts, there should be a nice crater at the landing site with berms to protect the base.
  • by RevWaldo (1186281) on Monday March 02, 2009 @03:14PM (#27043867)
    Mouser Mecha-Catbot might have a shot at beating BioHazard.
  • by this great guy (922511) on Monday March 02, 2009 @03:15PM (#27043869)
    Why doesn't NASA simply use a reverse graviton flux to land the spacecraft without any rocket blowing towards the lunar sand ? Oh wait... you guys haven't discovered yet how to create gravitons right ? Shit. I hope I haven't modified this timeline too much by revealing things you aren't supposed to know. Shitshitshit.
  • Sandblast First (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Monday March 02, 2009 @03:16PM (#27043877) Journal

    Many small vs. one large makes good sense in case of failure(s). Either way, why not blast the dust away as the preparation stage? A squadron of small crawlers with a high gas expansion motor (for simplicity, monopropellant such as UDMH, as in Shuttle steering thrusters or H2O2 as in Armadillo's landers) pointed ahead and slightly down. They'd line up side by side, crawl away from the base site, blasting the dust away in front of them like a line of snow blowers.

    Yes, this design might require more mass to be sent to the moon initially due to the mass of reaction gas. However it leaves a bunch of functional crawlers for other tasks plus a bunch of functional motors that can be used to construct suborbital lifters.

    If there's water ice, they could be constructed to harvest it, use the solar UV to convert it to H2O2, and be self-refilling. This would be slower because where there's ice there's less sunlight. Armadillo's designs would be very likely to be adaptable because they've built not only H2O2 lifter motors, but also H2O2 production facilities. A digger/UV/vacuum design is very different from their fuel production design (quite likely far more reliable), but they have some experience with the subject, and already have award money for designing landers.

  • Who says they'll let us land there?!1! After all that work our base are belong to them.

  • The article talks about two approaches: building protective berms, or paving with rocks large enough that they don't get blasted away.

    This, being the first ever attempt at building such a facility, might be the time to try both approaches simultaneously?
  • This is great! That is until the alien AI, which has a prime directive requiring destruction of all biological infestations, tells the robots to build a mass driver with which it either bombards Earth with large chunks of rock or completely de-orbits the Moon.
  • Instead of just have robots construct the station, have them man it also. The savings from not having life support and safety systems would be tremendous. It would greatly reduce the cost of manned missions to almost that of unmanned missions!!! . . . . . oh, wait

  • ...Just finishing reading "Red Mars" and they talk about automated or programmable construction robots.

    However I did notice that the author glossed over many of the problems associated with this, which the moonbots (if I may) would also encounter.

    #1) Weight. Escaping earths gravity well is hard.
    #2) HOT!/COLD! It is either really freakin' hot or really freakin' cold depending on where the Sun happens to be.
    #3) Oxygen. None. Cannot combust stuff.
    #4) Erosion. None. While having an atmosphere is a pain in the a

  • by Un pobre guey (593801) on Monday March 02, 2009 @04:55PM (#27045075) Homepage
    Making robots build "the outpost." It never fails to amaze how close people can come to seeing that which is right before their eyes, but not actually get there. We do not need a human outpost. There is no technical or scientific justification for one. Everything worth doing on the moon or in the rest of our solar system can be done with robots. Sending people up there to putter around is a colossal waste of money that detracts from the valuable work of scientific research and technical innovation. It is just plain stupid.

    Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

    • "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

      And also George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: "Because it is there."

      In other words, we want to go there because we're human. It doesn't NEED a technical or scientific justification.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Un pobre guey (593801)
        You are clearly a late-comer. Your argument is not merely rubbish, it is a straw man made of rubbish. I favor space exploration at least as much as anyone on this forum. The point you are missing is that a human being does not need to be physically present to explore space. In fact, the presence of humans impedes exploration by burning up the lion's share of resources in maintaining livable conditions. Look at the history of space exploration, from the points of view of both scientific achievement and explo
  • Yes, let's use robots to prepare the moon base site. And then we can use robots to build the habitats. And then we can use robots to collect the field samples -- after all, that's just more digging. And then we can use the robots we already use to analyze the samples. And then use more robots to manufacture and operate a moon mining operation... ... wait, why were we sending people again?

    (I mean that as a serious question. Why bother with humans?)

    • Because most people grew up watching Star Wars and space cartoons, and think it is man's destiny to fly around in gigantic spaceships fighting evil aliens with rayguns and getting the girl with the big boobs in the end. What's the fun in doing space exploration efficiently, cheaply, and with a huge scientific payoff if there are no aliens or chicks with big tits?
  • small lawnmower-sized robots could be used to build a landing site for a moon outpost

    with blackjack... and hookers....

  • 50 Wall-E's should be just what they need.
  • by Cally (10873)
    Small robots could build landing site for moon base, and monkeys could fly out of my butt. The odds of it actually happening are about the same.
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday March 02, 2009 @11:37PM (#27047949) Homepage

    Some of the Stanford AI crowd in the 1980s were talking up a proposal for a long-term project to build robots capable of building a moon base by the year 2000. I commented at the time "How soon can you do it in Arizona?" This yielded some embarrassment.

    NASA robotics efforts have had an overall negative effect on robotics as a field. They take forever, they produce one-off devices, and they suck smart people out of useful areas. JPL's rovers are really rather simple-minded devices, and are mostly teleoperated. They're just well engineered. Robotics efforts out of the NASA "centers" have generally been embarrassing. [astronautix.com]

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