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Wyss Institute roboticists win NASA award for developing smart deep-space habitats

Justin Werfel, Robert Wood and Chuck Hoberman to lead development of robotic strategies able to maintain crewed and un-crewed extra-terrestrial habitats in space and on Mars

By Benjamin Boettner

(CAMBRIDGE, Mass.) — NASA, in its endeavor to create smart habitats for future exploration missions to the Moon and eventually Mars, has funded a new Space Technology Research Institute (STRI) including teams from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

The organization of the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute (RETHi) project will bring together three interconnected research thrusts that work on complementary approaches for the realization of smart deep-space habitats. Credit: Purdue University

The multidisciplinary effort, called the Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute (RETHi), is led by a team from Purdue University in partnership with Harvard and additional teams from the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and will receive as much as $15 million over a five-year period.

The future of space missions reaching beyond low Earth orbit to the Moon and eventually Mars will crucially depend on habitats that are extraordinarily resilient and can protect astronauts and equipment from hazards such as unfiltered radiation, debris swirled up by local storms, meteorites, and unpredictable quakes. Moreover, those habitats need to be able to monitor themselves and autonomously adapt to, absorb, and recover from occurring damage, including during long stretches of time when they will not be occupied by astronauts.

“The Wyss Institute team is going to leverage its strong robotic expertise encompassing highly complementary areas, including swarm robotics, soft robots, and deployable structures, to help build the systems that will let us explore and live on other planets,” said Justin Werfel, Ph.D., a Senior Research Scientist at the Institute and Principal Investigator (PI) for Harvard’s RETHi program. Werfel is an expert in collective behavior, and has previously explored different approaches for swarms of robots to build user-requested structures. “Extraterrestrial environments are one of the classic scenarios where the use of robots is especially helpful. In these settings where human presence is so expensive and dangerous, and particularly when the habitats are expected to be uncrewed most of the time, this autonomy for building and repairing the systems and keeping them functional will be invaluable.”

Robert Wood’s pioneering soft robotics concepts are particularly attractive because they themselves are relatively impervious to damage, energy efficient and highly adaptable. “Our soft robotics armamentarium, in principle, enables us to create robots at many scales and with many capabilities,” said Wyss Institute Founding Core Faculty member and co-PI Wood, Ph.D., who is also the Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS. “Soft robotic devices also reduce the risk of injury at times when astronauts are around, and can adapt their shapes in tight spaces. We are very excited about the opportunities the RETHi initiative is creating for our research.”

Both swarm and soft robotic approaches can be combined with Chuck Hoberman’s “transformable design” work, creating structures that fold and unfold along pre-designed geometrical paths. Hoberman’s renowned designs span the realms of engineering, architecture, and art, and provide capabilities such as portability, rapid opening, and intelligent responsiveness that are beneficial for the team’s robotic strategy to smart habitats. “These elements can be made from ultra-strong and lightweight aerospace structural materials and be developed either as structural parts of robots themselves, or as seals or supporting structures deployable in damaged areas of smart space habitats,” said Wyss Institute Associate Faculty and RETHi co-PI Hoberman, M.S. He also is the Pierce Anderson Lecturer in Design Engineering at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and founder of New York-based firm Hoberman Associates.

The RETHi initiative, along with a second new STRI called Habitats Optimized for Missions of Exploration (HOME), is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is “responsible for developing cross-cutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current future missions.”

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