A pair of engineers from GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania has proposed that ice could be used to build custom structural components for exploration robots, or used for self-healing capabilities if the robots become damaged. In a recently released paper from Devin Carroll and Mark Yim, the duo outlines the idea of using ice as a structural medium, which has its advantages but presents some problematic hurdles in the manufacturing department.
The researchers have looked at several ways of building robotic structures out of ice, including using the additive and subtractive manufacturing processes, with the end goal being robots that can self-reconfigure, self-replicate, and self-heal. The idea is that the robots will be operating in an environment with enough ice material in the immediate area of exploration to perform those tasks, which requires temperatures cold enough for the ice to remain stable, and for it to remain functional when subjected to manufacturing and the robot’s heat output.
The engineers state that a modular approach, that is, designing the robot using a system of modules, is the optimum choice at this point for keeping temps to a minimum. For example, using one module for the body, one for the wheels, one for the controls, and so forth, then insulating each to keep any temperature fluctuations isolated. If one module melts too quickly, another can be manufactured quickly enough to keep the robot functional.
Tests carried out regarding how the ice could be custom formed included molding, 3D printing, and CNC machining, with the CNC option being the most efficient and energy-efficient, as its managed water runoff and ice shavings better than the others. Excess water has the potential to damage or short the robot’s electrical components, and excess shavings could freeze the robot to its surroundings. The video above shows a proof-of-concept design made by hand, but the exciting item to note is that the robot did not fall apart or melt even at room temperatures.