If we’re going to successfully colonize other planets after successfully ruining Earth, we’re going to need a logistics industry. That means roads, hangars, and fuel stations. It also means being able to find materials that sustain life thousands of miles away from the mines and reservoirs on our home planet.
Taking cues from one of the most industrious species on Earth, NASA researchers are building robots that roll out from a central hub, search uncharted terrain for resources, and direct other robots to follow fruitful paths. “Swarmies,” as the little guys are called, are programmed to function like ants that report back to the colony.
“This is one of the things that [Kennedy Space Center] employees work on other than launching rockets,” explains swarmies engineer Kurt Leucht. He’s referring to “In Situ Resource Utilization” or ISRU, a NASA project that aims to hunt down raw materials on the moon and Mars. The way Leucht describes it, ISRU is always on engineers’ minds. When Leucht got to talking about ISRU possibilities with intern Karl Stolleis, who also worked at the biological computation lab at the University of New Mexico, the anti-inspired swarmie robot idea was born.
Swarmies, which currently sort of resemble laptops on Roombas, also come with sophisticated “genetic algorithms” derived from ant studies. The software works like a set of “virtual chromosomes,” Leucht says–a kind of machine learning that helps the robots evolve to new situations.
And, in the same way that ants might leave pheromone trails that communicate their level of excitement to other ants following those trails in search of food, the swarmies also leave digital trails for other robots within the central lander “nest.” If one swarmie finds ice, for example, it’ll leave a message for other robots to go out in search of ice in that same area, too. If subsequent waves of robots don’t find ice, the signal disappears.
For now, Leucht, along with Stolleis and undergraduate intern Gil Montague, are testing swarmies in the Kennedy Space Center parking lot–unleashing the robots’ searching behaviors on barcodes attached to the asphalt. Right now, the project is still in proof-of-concept phase, but if it’s successful, Leucht hopes other NASA divisions–maybe the ones involved with the Mars Rover–will help fund and clone swarmies into a sizable robotic labor force.
“It’s one thing to get four robots to work together and communicate in a system like this, but it would be a whole different ball game if we had to get a hundred or a thousand of these robots working together,” he says.
Leucht’s not the only one interested in mining space rocks. Commercial space company Planetary Resources, headquartered in Washington State, is developing technology to mine asteroids for water and other minerals. Planetary Resources has been successful in finding funding thus far, counting Google cofounder Larry Page, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and filmmaker James Cameron among its investors.