Autonomous robot swarms being developed to mine lunar resources

Autonomous robot swarms being developed to mine lunar resources


It’s funny how often life mirrors art at times. A few years ago, I used to play a computer game called Eve Online. It was a fascinating game that was set in space. It had an economy almost like the real world, and at one stage the developers, CCP, hired a real economist to study the game economy. All the spaceships in the game came from minerals mined from asteroids, and extracted from moons and planets. Manufacturers tailored blueprints to get a higher efficiency, the ships were built in space stations and sold in a market hub. Unlike many other games where losses were temporary when a character dies, in Eve they were persistent. If your ship was blown up, then you didn’t get it back at the station when you respawned – it was gone for good. There were normally around 40,000 players on a single instance when I played. Some had grouped up into corporations and alliances numbering thousands of players to capture and hold star systems. These fights and the subsequent ship losses drove the economy. It was a brilliant game that left lasting memories and plenty of experiences. Sometimes you wanted to roam lawless space and look for pirates, and other times you wanted to sit in your mining ship, sending drones out to collect minerals from asteroid belts while watching Netflix on a second monitor.

That’s exactly what I was reminded of this week when I read about a new initiative to send drone swarms to mine lunar resources. Engineers from the University of Arizona are mapping out a plan to harvest the moon's resources using autonomous robot swarms with new excavation techniques. The team has even received half a million dollars in NASA funding.

To mine for ore on Earth, miners need to drill through the rock. This is a speciality of Moe Momayez, interim head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering and the David & Edith Lowell Chair in Mining and Geological Engineering. Momayez has developed an electrochemical process to drill through rock five times faster than any other method. But lunar mining is a totally different challenge.

"On Earth, we have unlimited energy to throw at breaking rocks," he said. "On the moon, you have to be a lot more conservative. To break rocks, we use a lot of water, and that's something we won't have on the moon. New processes and techniques are required. The most efficient way to break rocks on Earth is through blasting, and nobody has ever set off a blast on the moon."

Jekan Thanga, an associate professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, is adapting a neuromorphic learning architecture technique, which he developed in his lab, called the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System, or HEART. The system will train robots to work together on mining, excavation and even building tasks, and allow the robots to improve their collaboration skills over time. The robots will be built and trained on Earth. The ultimate goal is a fully autonomous swarm of robots to mine materials and construct simple structures.

Thanga's ASTEROIDS Laboratory runs a NASA-funded Undergraduate Research and Education Program, in which students spend a year leading their own research projects. The new NASA funding will allow Momayez and Thanga to add a module to the program focused on space mining.

If the guys at University of Arizona are looking for a drone controller with five years virtual experience, they can have my details. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with a pirate in a Caldari Tengu cruiser uncloaking within warp scramble range, like I did in game. Have they got Netflix in space?