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Day: July 12, 2019

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Archinaut snags $73 million in NASA funding to 3D-print giant spacecraft parts in orbit

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A project to 3D-print bulky components in space rather than bring them up there has collected a $73.7 million contract from NASA to demonstrate the technique in space. Archinaut, a mission now several years in development from Made In Space, could launch as soon as 2022.

The problem at hand is this: If you want a spacecraft to have solar arrays 60 feet long, you need to bring 60 feet of structure for those arrays to attach to — they can’t just flap around like ribbons. But where do you stash a 60-foot pole, or two 30-foot ones, or even 10 six-foot ones when you only have a few cubic feet of space to put them in? It gets real complicated real fast to take items with even a single large dimension into space.

Archinaut’s solution is simple. Why not just take the material for that long component into space and print it out on the spot? There’s no more compact way to keep the material than as a brick of solid matter.

Naturally this extends (so to speak) to more than simply rods and poles — sheets of large materials for things like light sails, complex interlocking structures on which other components could be mounted… there are plenty of things too big to take into space in one piece, but which could be made of smaller ones if necessary. Here’s one made for attaching instruments at a large fixed distance from a central craft:

Made in Space already has contracts in place with NASA, and has demonstrated 3D printing of parts aboard the International Space Station. It has also shown that it can print stuff in an artificial vacuum more or less equivalent to a space environment.

The demonstrator mission, Archinaut One, would launch aboard a Rocket Lab Electron launch vehicle no earlier than 2022, and after achieving a stable orbit, begin extruding a pair of beams that will eventually extend out 32 feet. Attached to these beams will be flexible solar arrays that unfurl at the same rate, attached to the rigid structures of the beams. When they’re finished, a robotic arm will lock them in place and do other housekeeping.

You can see it all happen in this unfortunately not particularly exciting video:

Once finished, this pair of 32-foot solar arrays would theoretically generate some five times the power that a spacecraft that size would normally pull in. Because spacecraft are almost without exception power-starved systems, having more watts to use or store for the orbital equivalent of a rainy day would certainly be welcome.

In another print, the robot arm could rearrange parts, snap on connectors and perform other tasks to create more complex structures like the ones in the concept art up top. That’s still well in the future, however — the current demonstrator mission will focus on the beam-and-array thing, though the team will certainly learn a lot about how to accomplish other builds in the process.

Naturally in-space manufacturing is a big concern for a country that plans to establish a permanent presence on and around the Moon. It’s a lot easier to make something there than make a quarter-million-mile delivery. You can keep up with Archinaut and Made In Space’s other projects along the space-printing line at the company’s blog.

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These robo-ants can work together in swarms to navigate tricky terrain

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While the agility of a Spot or Atlas robot is something to behold, there’s a special merit reserved for tiny, simple robots that work not as a versatile individual but as an adaptable group. These “tribots” are built on the model of ants, and like them can work together to overcome obstacles with teamwork.

Developed by EPFL and Osaka University, tribots are tiny, light and simple, moving more like inchworms than ants, but able to fling themselves up and forward if necessary. The bots themselves and the system they make up are modeled on trap-jaw ants, which alternate between crawling and jumping, and work (as do most other ants) in fluid roles like explorer, worker and leader. Each robot is not itself very intelligent, but they are controlled as a collective that deploys their abilities intelligently.

In this case a team of tribots might be expected to get from one end of a piece of complex terrain to another. An explorer could move ahead, sensing obstacles and relaying their locations and dimensions to the rest of the team. The leader can then assign worker units to head over to try to push the obstacles out of the way. If that doesn’t work, an explorer can try hopping over it — and if successful, it can relay its telemetry to the others so they can do the same thing.

Fly, tribot, fly!

It’s all done quite slowly at this point — you’ll notice that in the video, much of the action is happening at 16x speed. But rapidity isn’t the idea here; similar to Squishy Robotics’ creations, it’s more about adaptability and simplicity of deployment.

The little bots weigh only 10 grams each, and are easily mass-produced, as they’re basically PCBs with some mechanical bits and grip points attached — “a quasi-two-dimensional metamaterial sandwich,” according to the paper. If they only cost (say) a buck each, you could drop dozens or hundreds on a target area and over an hour or two they could characterize it, take measurements and look for radiation or heat hot spots, and so on.

If they moved a little faster, the same logic and a modified design could let a set of robots emerge in a kitchen or dining room to find and collect crumbs or scoot plates into place. (Ray Bradbury called them “electric mice” or something in “There will come soft rains,” one of my favorite stories of his. I’m always on the lookout for them.)

Swarm-based bots have the advantage of not failing catastrophically when something goes wrong — when a robot fails, the collective persists, and it can be replaced as easily as a part.

“Since they can be manufactured and deployed in large numbers, having some ‘casualties’ would not affect the success of the mission,” noted EPFL’s Jamie Paik, who co-designed the robots. “With their unique collective intelligence, our tiny robots can demonstrate better adaptability to unknown environments; therefore, for certain missions, they would outperform larger, more powerful robots.”

It raises the question, in fact, of whether the sub-robots themselves constitute a sort of uber-robot? (This is more of a philosophical question, raised first in the case of the Constructicons and Devastator. Transformers was ahead of its time in many ways.)

The robots are still in prototype form, but even as they are, constitute a major advance over other “collective” type robot systems. The team documents their advances in a paper published in the journal Nature.

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Amazon reportedly ramps development on Alexa-powered home robot on wheels

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Bloomberg reported last April that Amazon was working on a home robot codenamed ‘Vesta’ (after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home) last year, and now the publication says that development on the project continues. Plus, the report includes new details about the specifics of the robot, including that it will indeed support Alexa and have wheels to help it move around. My terrible artist’s rendering of what that could look like is above.

The plan for Vesta was apparently to release it this year, but it’s not yet quite ready for mass production, according to Bloomberg’s sources. And while it could end up mothballed and never see the light of day, as with any project being developed ahead of launch, the company is said to be putting more engineering and development resources into the team working on its release.

Current prototypes of the robot are said to be about waist-high, per the report, and make their way through the world aided by sensor-fed computer-vision. It’ll come when you call thanks to the Alexa integration, per an internal demo described by Bloomberg, and should ostensibly offer all the same kind of functionality you’d get with an Echo device, including calling, timers and music playback.

For other clues as to what Vesta could look like, if and when it ever launches, a good model might be Kuri, the robot developed by Bosch internal startup Mayfield Robotics which was shuttered a year ago and never made it to market. Kuri could also record video and take photos, play games and generally interact with the household.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also apparently readying a Sonos-competing high-quality Echo speaker to debut next year.

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