Underground habitats have recently been the focus of extraplanetary colonization efforts. Protection from micrometeorites, radiation, and other potential hazards makes underground locations desirable compared to surface dwellings. Building such underground structures presents many challenges, among which there are ways to actually build them. A team of researchers at Delft University of Technology (TUD) is working on a plan to unearth materials and use them to print habitats. It’s all done in groups of swarming robots.
This idea comes from a grant opportunity posted by the European Space Agency. Students at the Delft University of Technology’s Robot Building Lab (RB), led by Dr. Henriettevia, enthusiastically participated in a task focused on on-site resource utilization for extraterrestrial construction. The RB team, along with experts in materials science, robotics, and aerospace engineering, submitted an idea that was awarded € 100,000 for the preliminary development of a proof of concept.
The proposed approach focuses on the lab’s specialty, robot building, digging up regoliths, printing new habitats using a layered modeling process, and everything needed to complete the task. It has four main components that coordinate work between robots. Power them and their habitats.
Robotic excavation of regoliths has been previously investigated, but is usually done in lunar conditions. Different patterns of excavation help build different structures. The pattern that the RB team focused on was a downwardly sloping spiral. Such structures can create a stable and safe structure within a relatively small footprint on the surface.
Modeling the stress and strain of the structure is an important element of current research projects. The team has developed a 1m x 1m scale prototype of the fragment with a pattern that can effectively create a safe and stable area. Some areas are designed with residential in mind, such as a removable plant area that can accommodate hydroponically grown plants.
Tons of regolith need to be removed from a real-scale excavation site. The regolith is used as a material for 3D printing stable habitats. Initially, the team planned to combine regolith with liquid sulfur to make concrete. However, after involving material scientists and an industrial partner specializing in robotic printing with cement, they decided to utilize some of Mars’ water resources to use cement-based concrete. However, the creation of the cement itself requires infrastructure, so such plans to use regolith must wait until the infrastructure is already installed on Earth.
Structuring the habitat itself is also an important consideration when designing shapes for 3D printing. The team focused on relatively porous structures, so less material was used for construction. However, the structure is still very strong and durable, and also provides good insulation from the radiation and micrometeoroid impacts that underground colonies are trying to avoid.
Some of the benefits of this approach are due to collaboration, which is one of the greatest drivers of innovation. This project is coordinated by RB Labs, but involves both TUD partners and external commercial partners. These collaborators bring civilian, aerospace, and robot engineering expertise and layered modeling techniques to develop robot swarm construction approaches.
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Mars underground habitat design to robot production. arxiv.org/abs/2105.02619 arXiv: 2105.02619v1 [astro-ph.IM]
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A swarm of robots was able to dig an underground city on Mars
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