Will the future of space exploration involve swarms of smart robots aiding astronauts by mining for resources, or even autonomously preparing other planets for human habitation? It sounds like (and is) the stuff of weighty science fiction epics. But it’s also the plan of a California-based company, named OffWorld, which is busy developing the necessary technology to corner this market in the coming years.
“There’s a bleeding edge of our society which yearns for the frontier,” OffWorld CEO Jim Keravala told Digital Trends. “Having that edge of geographical frontier reinvigorates the rest of society as well. It keeps us searching, it keeps us young, it keeps us fresh, and open to challenge. On Earth, we’ve explored just about all of the geographical frontiers. [Space is the next step.]”
To say that OffWorld’s dream is an ambitious one is to put it mildly. The company envisions a future in which millions of smart robots work together using swarm intelligence “on and offworld” to build the infrastructure of tomorrow. Long term, they even imagine the possibility of using the robots to mine for materials which could be used to build new chips “with zero reliance on terrestrial supply.”
Powered by on-board solar panels and relying on machine learning for smarts, the company’s robots promise to carry out the heavy lifting needed to get space ready for humans. Keravala listed the types of tasks the company is building robots to carry out as including harvesting water ice for drinking or to make rocket fuel, building underground and surface-based “safe cabins” for colonists, establishing power plants, and paving surfaces. (Heck, maybe they’ll even throw us a banging welcome party when we arrive!)
“What we need to push out into these harsh conditions is a new form of industrial work force that can undertake these tough jobs in space before we send humans out [into space],” he said. “We’re now entering an era when new forms of robotics can undertake all of these basic infrastructure jobs.”
Keravala refers to OffWorld’s robots as different “species” of robot. He likens them, conceptually rather than visually, to creatures such as ants, which work together to achieve remarkable results as colonies. “An ant has very simple intelligence with a very limited set of neurons and, for the most part, non-specialized set of capabilities,” he said. “In the same way, our robots are based around a common architecture.”
This common architecture consists of a six-wheeled design not dissimilar to the delivery robots built by Starship Technologies. OffWorld’s robots measure around two feet in length, weigh around 53 kilos, and boast a power capacity of around 13.5 kWh. They are designed to be small and robust enough to neatly pack into and survive launches on rockets. Care has been paid to making sure they will be able to operate in a variety of non-Earth environments, including the moon, Mars and even the surface of asteroids without requiring a major redesign.
It has already landed support from undisclosed Fortune 500 companies to use its technology for more terrestrial applications such as mining.
However, while they all feature a similar base design, the robots are also intended to be modular, so that special tools such as special gripper arms can be affixed to carry out different tasks. Those could range from excavating ore or laying surfaces to moving building materials.
The $1 trillion question
The billion — or, heck, even trillion — dollar question is: But will it happen? In my view, the answer is an inevitable “yes,” although it remains to be seen whether OffWorld will be the company to carry it out. Already on Earth we have robots that are used in everything from mapping to building houses, often involving high levels of autonomy. Recently the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) staged the first part of a competition in which roboticists from around the world submitting machines capable of completing autonomous missions underground. Meanwhile, NASA — with its annual budget of more than $20 billion — has a Space Robotics Challenge, seeking robots that could assist future astronauts on long-duration missions.
In other words, robots have come a long way in just the past decade alone. It is inevitable that they will play a big role in the future of space travel. It just needs one company to take the lead.
“Beyond geostationary orbit, where a lot of our fixed position communication satellites exist, the commercial market drops off to zero today,” Keravala said. “I’m not talking about space agency missions or the odd data collection mission; I’m talking about real robust business supply chains.”
To its credit, OffWorld has a talented team working on the problem. It currently consists of 26 people and is growing rapidly. Many, like Keravala, have previously worked on satellite launches and in other successful space industry roles. “Collectively as a leadership team we’ve got hundreds of years in this space,” he said.
Perhaps the smartest move, however, is the fact that OffWorld is keeping its goals firmly, err, onworld for now. It has already landed support from undisclosed Fortune 500 companies to use its technology for more terrestrial applications such as mining. Many of these applications involve the same challenges you’d deal with in space, such as being able to deploy robots in complex environments with limitations on the ease of communication with a ground control station. That means that problem-solving, whether it be navigation or something else, must be able to be able to be carried out without the safety net of human intervention.
Treating Earth like space
By not making its space ambitions part of its foundational business model, Keravala thinks he can make his space robot company profitable long before it actually goes to space. He noted that funding for applications such as mining will allow the team to test, iterate and deploy its robots on Earth; then use those insights when it comes to the company’s ultimate goal.
“We are developing our space program on Earth right now; treating Earth as though it were a celestial body,” he said. “We can then take that work, of which 80% of it will be immediately applicable to the space domain, and almost fund ourselves to start building the space-rated variants of our robotics systems.”
“By 2023 at the latest, we’ll have a large number of these robots deployed in many locations.”
The first deployments are scheduled to take place next year, involving both single and collaborative robots. “By 2023 at the latest, we’ll have a large number of these robots deployed in many locations,” he continued.
And once everything else comes together to be able to send robots into space? “As soon as every part of a space launch vehicle becomes reusable, the entire economics of transportation to space changes,” Keravala said, citing the work of companies like SpaceX as leaders. “With that, comes the trigger, the starting pistol, of the space economy. I think that point in time is coming in the next decade.”
No wonder companies like OffWorld are lining up to be part of it.