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Robot Space Arm Gets Ready for a Flight to the Moon

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A COLDArm robot built by Motiv Space Systems is designed to operate in -279 degrees Fahrenheit for work on the Moon.

Sci-Fi author Robert Heinlein described the Moon as a “harsh mistress.” Robot manufacturer, Motiv, has created a “space arm” that is designed to operate on the brutal surface of the Moon. Motiv worked with the Jet Propulsion Lab to design the COLDArm (COLD Operable Lunar Deployable Arm). This robotic arm can reliably function in extremely cold environments – as low as -279 degrees Fahrenheit. COLDArm functions without the heating or insulation typically used on space arms.

Under ordinary circumstances, robotics cannot operate at temperatures below -67 degrees Fahrenheit before requiring a substantial amount of energy. The COLDArm was designed to reduce the overall power needed for a rover or lander’s operations. This allows robots equipped with this special arm to extend missions and reduce power consumption. Motiv’s work with NASA on the COLDArm is the first piece in a long line of space robotics. The COLDArm is adaptable to fit the many rovers and landers the space agency has planned for future missions.

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Human developments on the Moon will depend on robots that can operate reliably – and with low energy requirements – at -279 Fahrenheit.

The Development Process

In Motiv’s work with the Jet Propulsion Lab, each organization contributed specialized technology. “The COLDArm was conceived as an application of fused technology developments between Motiv Space Systems and JPL,” Tom McCarthy, VP of business development at Motiv Space Systems told Design News. “Motiv has been developing robots with capable electronics for extremely cold environments, while JPL has been working on actuation systems that operate in cryo environments.”

The reason for creating the COLDArm was to demonstrate robotics functionality at low power in extreme temperatures. “The technologies from Motiv and JPL needed an application to demonstrate their unique capabilities. Therefore, the COLDArm concept materialized,” said McCarthy. “The emergence of the NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) lander program provided a unique opportunity to demonstrate the technology in a relevant environment. The COLDArm also demonstrates applicability in other solar system destinations.”

The Robot’s Moon Tasks

The goal of COLDArm is to show that a specially designed robot can complete a wide range of work that will need to be done on the Moon. “The program is designed to evaluate the applicability of early technology for future Moon settlement activities,” said McCarthy. “These first landed missions will provide a testing ground for new technology. If it is successful, the technology will find its way into many subsequent systems in preparation for human explorers.”

The long-term plan is to create robots that can conduct maintenance on Moonbase equipment. “Robots are going to be critical tools to support astronauts when present and perform maintenance tasks when unattended by astronauts,” said McCarthy. “Some of these tasks will include the unloading of cargo from landers, transportation of materials to depots, and the creation of infrastructure such as landing pads to support additional arrivals.”

In order for robots to perform effectively in space, they will need to be light in mass, efficient in power consumption, and durable under harsh conditions. “The greatest challenge in space is the available mass you can bring with you to execute your task. Space robotics have to be extremely efficient when it comes to mass and power allowances,” said McCarthy. “These systems also have to be robust to the rigors of a launch environment.  The work on COLDArm is exploring the edges of those efficiencies.”

Tech Breakthroughs Were Required

Traditional robot materials would not have worked effectively in the Moon’s environment, so Motiv and JPL turned to emerging materials to create the space arm. “COLDArm is a collection of unique material developments. In particular, the gearing is made from a material known as bulk metallic glass,” said McCarthy. “This crystalline metal displays unique durability properties across large thermal ranges, including strength and wear.”

Traditional electronics were also a non-starter, so the electronics had to be created for the extreme environment. Researchers had to take radiation into account as well as the ability to run electronics that are not warmed up. “As for the electronics, only certain types of parts can operate at cryo temperatures. In some cases, the parts perform better,” said McCarthy. “A lot of research and testing had to be done to identify families of parts that can not only tolerate radiation in space but also operate cold to help preserve power for remote operations.”

Future Robotics in Space

The research and development for Moon robotics will not be complete when the first humans return to the Moon. R&D will continue beyond the work to get to the Moon. “Space robotics will quickly evolve with a growing and sustaining presence on the Moon. Robots will be expected to perform a variety of operations, which will maximize the astronauts' safety,” said McCarthy. “Eventually, human explorers and robots will work collaboratively as we strive to demonstrate that human explorers can live sustainably on the Moon.”

Developing robotics for the Moon will also anticipate robot operations in other environments beyond Earth. “The developments that include COLDArm are the first steps in an approach to understanding how to send humans to Mars,” said McCarthy. “Robots will need to construct sites, transport goods, and tend infrastructure while humans are not present.”

The ultimate goal is to turn much of the extraterrestrial maintenance and construction work over to robotics. “Robots will play a significant role in the construction activities for any long-term settlement approach,” said McCarthy. “The experience gained on the Moon will influence the plans to send humans to Mars, which is our next exploration destination.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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