IceBot Antarctic (Planetary?) Robotic Explorers Made Of Ice
Behold mighty IceBot! Okay, the actual IceBot is a small proof-of-concept model that only weighs about twenty pounds. But, what an idea!
IEEE Spectrum: Where did this idea come from, and why do you think it hasn’t been tried before?
Devin Carroll: The first robot I designed was a tram robot for ecologists to use to survey forests. One of the challenges to making robots for this field is not only are robots expensive but the natural elements will break them given time. 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. We ultimately settled on ice because of the design flexibility it affords us and the current interest in icy, remote environments... if we could build a robot from ice, perhaps it could be used to assist in exploring icy planets for life and data collection.
I would argue this hasn't been done before because of the uncertainty that using ice brings. Unlike traditional building material, the designer does not know a priori what conditions will cause the ice to fail—we can make an educated guess, but the margin for error is much higher. There are also complications associated with making the robot and getting it to the site safely. If we build it and then ship it to the deployment site it must be kept cold throughout its journey whereas if we make it at the deployment site we must also ship a manufacturing site with the system, increasing the overall monetary and energy costs associated with the system.
Can you speculate about what an arctic (or planetary) exploration robot might look like if it incorporated a self modification or repair capability?
When I think of an arctic (or planetary) exploration robot that incorporates self-modification or repair capabilities I envision a system with two types of robots—the first explores the environment and collects materials needed to perform self-augmentation or repair, and the second is some sort of manipulator/manufacturing system. We can envision the exploration class of robot returning to a centralized location with a request for a plow or some other augmentation and the manufacturing system will be able to attach the augmentation directly to the robot. Similarly with repair—if, for example, a robot recognizes a crack, the manipulator would be able to patch the crack using an ice band-aid of sorts, sealing the crack and
preventing it from propagating further.
Part of my dissertation includes work towards this effort. In terms of the manipulator/end effector design, one idea we are exploring is using a mesh of resistance wire to locally melt surfaces of ice blocks and create a temporary connection between the block of ice and manipulator while we maneuver and machine it to a desired geometry.
If you had asked me where this idea came from, I'd say that it came from Greg Bear, who wrote about this idea in his 2005 novel Killing Titan. It does't make sense to carry all of the materials for vehicles and weapons all the way to Titan, when you can find all the materials you could ever want right there, quick to hand.
These organic compounds will provide plenty of the raw materials used by our weapon and vehicle seeds to double and even triple their present mass...
"These are your rudimentary seed packages," Bueller says. "Some will combine in place to form more complicated structures, like excavators or centipedes. Others will take more time and grow out to full size by themselves, mostly the vehicles supporting big weapons - zap guns, ionics, penetrators. Once placed in their cradles beside the station, all the seeds will dip from the station storage tanks, and they'll also start pulling in gases and liquids from the local atmosphere...
In the novel, enormous ships and vehicles are effectively grown from ice, for use in fighting and exploration.
And the goddamnedest, most primordial-looking machines we’ve yet seen.
As big as destroyers, bronze and silver, with a dozen segments and lateral tree lines of ornately fringed legs for carving and crawling and digging—for burrowing deep through ice and rock into the interior oceans of Titan, and for tangling with, and surviving, other monsters.
These machines come with their own problems and weaknesses, natcherly, and no certainty there’ll be enough material down there to allow them to grow to full size or reach full armament. In which case, we might have to scavenge the surface of Titan and hunt for machine corpses before we can dive deep.