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Virginia Tech lab using robots to pave path to the stars

(WDBJ)
Published: Dec. 12, 2019 at 12:01 AM EST
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They might not look like much. But every click and every whir coming out of these robots on the floor of a lab at Virginia Tech is a step closer to colonizing the stars.

At least, says Professor Erik Komendera, that's the hope. "If we're sending people back to the moon in the next decade," he said, "we'd prefer they not have to build their own home when they get there."

Instead, it'll be little robots like these doing the work. When the next generation of astronauts arrive on the lunar surface, they may find habitats and structures ready to go, built by robots.

But that dream is still years away. For now, back on the ground in the Field and Space Experimental Robotics Laboratory, Prof. Komendera's students are focused on baby steps.

"We have MARC 2. Its brother MARC 1 is over there," said grad student Matthew Anderson, pointing across the room at two of the team's robots.

Anderson helps program MARC 1 and 2, training them to know when they're in danger of breaking their construction materials, or how to adapt when things go wrong.

"If they were following a pre-written script, they would fail at the first opportunity," said Komendera.

For now, the robots are remote controlled. But the team is working to make them autonomous, allowing fleets of robots to build and move and fix things in space without human interference.

"It's going to be an unprecedented experiment," said Komendera, adding that the benefits of this work are clear.

"Space is a very dangerous and hazardous environment. It's very costly and time consuming to send people out," he said.

In addition to the money saved by having robots that can learn and do the heavy lifting on a moon base or mars colony, this tech could be applied to assembly lines or disaster rescue robots here on earth.

But the ultimate goal for Komendera and his students remains clear: to build a path to the stars, one stick and brick and block at a time.

"Humanity would love to expand beyond the confines of earth," Komendera said.

Copyright 2019 WDBJ7. All rights reserved.

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