With a re-invigorated space race in the pursuit of a Mars landing – amongst many other upcoming exciting ventures – there have also been some pretty wacky but interesting ideas on how to expand space exploration recently. Last month, Japanese engineers suggested designs for a wooden satellite to combat space junk, and in 2021 could see a remote-controlled car race on the Moon, just because scientists can.
The latest fascinating innovation comes from people at the GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who want to ditch clunky metal robots exploring other planets and replace them with ice. That’s right, they believe that using ice to build robots would allow for easy and cheap construction, and could even self-repair with the abundance of ice on some planetary bodies.
In their study, presented at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Devin Carroll and Mark Yim showed a proof-of-concept robot that can be driven around whilst being predominantly made of ice. The IceBot demonstrated that not only can an ice-based robot function, it can survive without melting at room temperature for a while – the authors state that the applications of the IceBot will be in environments cold enough that this wouldn’t pose a problem anyway.
Watch as the method for creating the IceBot is shown, and then wait for the end to see it in action. Credit: Devin Carroll
“One of the challenges to making robots for this field is not only robots are expensive but the natural elements will break them given time,” Carroll said in an interview to IEEE Spectrum.
“Mark and I started exploring the idea of building robots from found material as a way to add robustness to robotic systems operating in remote or hostile environments with a secondary goal of reducing the cost of the system.”
The current problem with planetary rovers and robots is the intense reliability they require; should they have a malfunction or hit rough terrain and break a wheel, in most cases that’s game over for that robot. Sending an entire space mission to fix a solitary rover is not going to be viable any time soon and planets like Mars rarely stock spare wheels for a quick pit-stop.
So instead, the researchers turned to one of the last materials anyone would expect robotics to be built out of – ice. Obviously, the circuitry can’t be made out of ice, but the chassis and wheels certainly could. If it were possible to create effective robots out of ice, said robot would have an abundance of spare parts literally across many planets’ floor. Even better, ice does not need glue or laser cutters to sculpt it into shapes and structures, so the robot could likely repair any breaks and even create its own parts in the future. In the meantime, crafting robots out of ice would be much cheaper than the composites used currently and could be used to create disposable bots.
The IceBot is a very early iteration and exists purely as a proof-of-concept, so electronic ice overlords won’t be taking over just yet, but it is certainly an interesting concept. The researchers also state that whilst ice solves some problems, new problems arise, such as transportation of the robot would need to be cold enough to maintain its structure.