Robots made from ice to explore other planets

Ice is an abundant material in the solar system and researchers are exploring whether it can be used to build and repair robots. University of Pennsylvanian engineers presented their early work on ice as a structural material for robots in a paper at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). The idea is that in cold enough environments, ice robots could be capable of "self-reconfiguration, self-replication, and self-repair." In IEEE Spectrum, Evan Ackerman interviewed lead researcher Devin Carroll:

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. Climate change has many folks interested in the Antarctic and ice sheets while NASA and other space exploration groups are looking to the stars for ice and water. Therefore, ice felt like the most logical step—if we could build a robot from ice, perhaps it could be used to assist in exploring icy planets for life and data collection[…]

What are you working on next?

My immediate focus is on designing a modular joint we can use to easily and securely join actuators with blocks of ice as well as working to develop an end effector that will allow us to manipulate blocks of ice without permanently deforming them via screw holes or other, similar connection methods.

"Robots Made of Ice Could Build and Repair Themselves on Other Planets" (IEEE Spectrum)

image: University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab