System Families and Design Theory
The predominate concept behind the design of the telerobots used for Avalon’s telerobotic pre-settlement is one common to most of the phases of TMP. Min-A-Max; maximum diversity of use/application from a minimum diversity of components/elements. In fact, one could call this one of the key cultural precepts of TMP. However, with robots this becomes a significant challenge due to their physical and topological complexity combined with a need for very high compactness, compared to such things as architecture. Two technologies, likely to be particular engineering obsessions of Asgard MUOL and MUOF development, may prove critical to achieving Min-A-Max with Avalon robotics; SmartSocket and TouchPlate interfacing. SmartSockets are quick-connect/release socket elements that provide strong rigid mechanical attachment with one or more kinds of power, data, and thermal bus connection. They may ultimately include powered locking mechanisms, allowing sockets to engage and release themselves under computer control. This will be important for the development of sophisticated space frame structures that can be quickly robot-assembled on-orbit and for the use of one of the key forms of orbital service robots; the InchWorm robot arm. TouchPlates are interfaces that provide power, data, and thermal communication without the need for a high friction mechanical connection, such as tongue-in-groove alloy connectors common to electronics connectors and screw ring hose connections common to fluid systems. This is a key feature of the MUOL service backplane technology, intended to isolate failures in the bus to individual modules so that they do no propagate through the station, as is often the case with power overloads and shorts. These technologies would be very important to minimizing the complexity of component interfacing in Avalon robots, facilitating the ease with which robots of relatively simple manipulative abilities, compounded by telecommunications latency, could repair and assemble other robots using largely self contained components.
Avalon robots would not likely be based on a single universal multi-purpose design. Rather, they would be based on several ‘families’ of different scale intended for different ranges of use and defined primarily by series of ‘chassis’ for mobile robots and ‘backplanes’ for stationary robots that accommodate many applications through different combinations of parts within that family. The families would share common interface standards across them and many common components. Other components, however, would be more specific to the scale of a particular family, potentially usable with parts of larger, but not always smaller, scale.
One might wonder why such a project would not propose the use of modular or fractal-modular robotics platforms based on a single small universal modular unit in order to facilitate the Min-A-Max ideal. Certainly, this would seem the ideal form for shipping across space. It’s likely that much of the technology associated with these experimental robotics platforms will be incorporated in one way or another into Avalon development. The Self-Assembling Space Frame structure is a good demonstration of this. But the very high/long use rate and high power/torque of motive functions in Avalon robots –especially for those traveling great distances like vehicles or doing mining activities- demands more resilience than the functional generalism of single-module platforms may be capable of. Clearly, these platforms are not intended for situations where a single module is doing a single task perpetually. They are intended more for high-flexibility intermittent use where a system is changing its shape and function frequently. And so much more specialized and ruggedized components become necessary for these longer tougher duties. This does not preclude hybridization with other component systems. This author, however, sees a chassis/backplane-specific design approach as more likely owing to the great resilience demanded by these hard surface environments and continuous operation.
So the typical Avalon robot would break down into several basic types of modules; chassis, backplane, power systems, drive units, actuators/tools, sensors, controllers, communications, and ‘accessories’. (ie, lights, visual status displays, bumpers, shield plates, tow hooks, racks, fences/panels, reinforcement struts and plates, etc.)
Chassis and backplanes would define the basic form factors within a family. A chassis is a unified structure intended to host self-mobile robots. A backplane is a stationary structural system intended to support stationary processing ‘lines’ and integrating with other structural systems, such as architectural space frames. Self-mobile robots will be the dominant form early in the telerobotic outpost phase. Stationary robots will become more common with the establishment of excavated facilities and the development of sheltered factory complexes.
Though mobile and stationary robots would seem to be very different, this author imagines a convergence in their design though the concept of the ‘breadboard panel’ as a primary component attachment structure and space frames as a supporting structure. The basic function of both chassis and backplane are the same; to provide both a physical attachment for other modules and a communications bus for power, data, and sometimes heat and hydraulic power. This can be simply accommodated with a rigid alloy panel using a standardized grid of SmartSocket interfaces having an appearance akin to the ‘breadboards’ used by electronics and photonics engineers.
Using this common method of attachment, we arrive at a very similar approach to design and assembly for both stationary and mobile robots based on this same breadboard attachment surface. The basic backplane module would consist of a breadboard that attaches to other backplane modules and to stationary support structures such as a space frame. It’s family series would be defined by the scale and geometry of the frame structures supporting these panels. For the chassis, the breadboard is folded into a sandwich of two horizontal breadboards linked by smaller vertical breadboard panels which host more compact components within its volume. (most likely in a radial arrangement around a central interior interface) Drive and actuator components attach to the surface outside surfaces of the breadboard. Secondary space frame components (possibly hosting additional backplane breadboard panels) likewise retrofit to the chassis, which serves as the core structural element. Thus we arrive at a basic common architecture for supporting a huge assortment of components designed around this common interface standard and intended for easy robotic assembly.
Let’s now look at some of the likely robot families of the Avalon telerobotic settlement.
MFR – Multi-Function Rover
Perhaps the first self-mobile robots deployed as part of the Beachhead phase of development, these robots are likely to be pre-assembled for the most part and delivered whole via soft landers, possibly carried by Beachhead landing craft or deployed by their own individual landers. The MFR would employ a modest-scale chassis perhaps a few square meters in area with multiple articulated drive wheels, a small flat bed cargo area, and power system with small fixed back-up solar power cells and possibly a larger deployable solar power system. Equipped with a broad compliment of optical and other sensors including at least one articulated stereo video ‘head, it’s primary tools would be one or two smaller InchWorm style robot arms, tow hooks, and a light bull-dozer plow. It’s chief roles would be the exploration of the immediate area about the Beachhead landers, deployment of initial settlement equipment including marking out drop zones with Transponder communications units, clearing of small scale debris from the Beachhead site, and recovering initial small rough landed payloads, primarily by ‘departing’ where they land.
LSA - Lander Service Arm
Attached to the platform structure of the Beachhead Lander with each lander having from one to a few, the Lander Service Arm would be the basis of a rudimentary outpost Workstation. Similar to other InchWorm robots but relatively long, the LSA would be used to aid self-deployment of Beachhead Lander systems, recharge and repair MFRs, and perform assembly of other robots and system deployed from the initial Beachhead outposts. Though used in a primarily stationary mode, the LSA would have the same basic design of other InchWorm robots as used by orbital facilities, having a modular tool connector interface and articulated sensor head at both ends of the arm, allowing it to travel end-over-end like an inchworm (hence the name) and plug alternately into breadboard-like anchor and tool pallet modules, some of which may carry their own power systems affording independent mobility. By deploying breadboard panels from its initial base platform, the BeachHead lander would be able to move its LSAs from the lander platform and construct larger Workstation facilities and other built structures, though most likely the Beachhead outpost would assemble and deploy new InchWorms for this purpose rather than using the initial LSAs.
This is the standard InchWorm robot as originally developed for MUOL applications and adapted to many environments. Much shorter than the MUOL InchWorm, the Avalon InchWorm would be used chiefly as a small crane, structural assembly robot, and stationary Workstation and factory robot. The essential InchWorm is composed of two parts; a multi-jointed arm and a founation/tool pallet module. Both ends of the arm feature modular tool connects that allow them to either plug into a foundation module or attach tools for different jobs stored in compartments around the foundation. Foundation and tool pallet modules are usually designed for attachment to some kind of structural backplane providing power and data links. However, they can be more specialized in foundation and tool pallet rolls and when used in multiples allow the InchWorm to traverse the surface of a structure by moving end-over-end and plugging into alternate foundations. For independently mobility, a breadboard chassis module is employed as a foundation module. This mobile foundation module would include high traction pads, power, computer control modules, and extensible bracing legs that give it more potential cantilever reach. These modules would allow the InchWorm to ‘walk’ across open terrain instead of a fixed structure. Using a larger chassis breadboard module as a hub, multi-legged InchWorm robots become possible, though in general they would be more commonly used in stationary positions or attached to fixed structures.
RR - Recovery Rover
The RR (Double-R) is basically a larger scale form of the Multi-Function Rover and would have a very similar form, just at a larger scale and with much more flat bed space dedicated to payload transport and a powerful InchWorm crane with telescoping arm. About the size of a compact pick-up truck, it would perform many of the heavier in-outpost debris clearance and materials handling duties but its primary role would be to traverse the Drop Zone area to collect payloads and recover discarded rough lander components for recycling. Its power systems would be designed for long duty periods and a much larger deployable solar charging system would be used as backup power. It would also be equipped with sophisticated tracking systems and long-range telescopic cameras that, in concert with Drop Zone Transponder units, would aid it in seeking out payloads. Equipped with a similar deployable plow as used by the MFR and simple power hammer tools, it would also be used to clear the Drop Zone and outpost areas of larger rocks and could break-up discarded lander hardware for easier recovery and recycling. RRs would usually be used in pairs or larger teams when working in the Drop Zone, allowing them to assist each other in the loading of payloads. In some Beachhead scenarios, where rovers are deployed by independent landers, RRs may supercede the use of MFRs altogether. But they are relatively large and bulky robots more efficiently delivered in parts, especially given likely smaller scale initial transorbital transit capabilities.
ER - Exploration Rover
A variation of the Recovery Robot, the ER would use the flat bed space of the RR for a laboratory module, increased power storage, independent interplanetary communications up-link, and a storage rack for Transponder units deployed as the rover travels leaving a WiFi network trail as it goes in order to maintain a continuous broadband link to the outpost and expand its operating territory. Its drive units would feature 8 or more ‘rollers’ (motor/wheel units) on articulated suspension legs –much like those featured on today’s experimental Hallucigenia vehicles- that would allow it to negotiate rough terrain, switch between crawling, walking, and rolling modes of movement, and automatically compensate for individual drive unit failure. It’s laboratory systems would be used primarily for simple materials assay and would include sophisticated drilling, coring and digging tools to allow it collect samples for geological classification and later deeper analysis by stationary labs back at the main outpost.
MRE – Mini-Rover Explorer
The Mini-Rover Explorer is a variant of the MFR with a similar configuration to the ER but in a much smaller size and lower profile form factor with much of its systems installed within the volume of its chassis and manipulator and sensors in the front and back edges rather than on top or underneath. It would feature a similar drive system to the ER but may also be designed to function with treads or crawler legs alone, its drive units designed for side-of-chassis mounting rather than underneath so as to allow it mobility if flipped-over and the ability to move wedged between crevasses. MREs would usually be deployed by other robots serving as carriers and communication nodes and would be used to explore areas that cannot be reached by other larger systems, such as caves and un-cleared lava tunnels. Climbing line cable connectors would link the MRE to a ‘life line’ cable, allowing it to be lowered by winch into inaccessible locations and maintain power and data links.
TR – Transport Rover
Also known as the ‘mule’, the Transport Rover would be another variant using the RR chassis –likely the most widely used of the chassis families. Supporting no more than a flat cargo bed with optical sensors confined to chassis edges and sitting on a high strength set of drive ‘rollers’, its purpose is simple but very important. It would function as a primary means of transporting items over distance and would be variously equipped with cargo containment fences, bins, containers, scissor lifts, and four-direction bed tilt lifts. TRs would be used individually or linked in series or ‘mule trains’. One of their key uses would be to make outpost cluster modules mobile, allowing sets of TRs to function like a portable mini-outpost in support of other robots. One of the most common of such uses would be as a portable deployable power plant to support robot activity at some distance from the main outpost –particularly useful when establishing satellite facilities for resource utilization. TRs would also be useful in handling large payload and lander waste recovery missions, a team of Recovery Rovers using a circulating team or train of TRs to transport payloads to the outpost.
As concerted mining operations are established for gathering resources, TRs would be key to moving large amounts of raw material over long distances –but may ultimately be replaced in that role by tracked transport. These long distance transporters would take the form of a pair of TR units supporting a long cargo deck or bucket carrier between them that can be loaded from the top or side and unloaded from the side and bottom. Teams of four or more TRs would be used to support large carrier platforms made of Road Tiles. These may form the basis of mobile launch and landing pads.
TRs are also likely to form the basis of the first manned transit vehicles deployed by the outpost, their flat beds used to host pressurized cabin modules with docking ports. In one NASA transport model, a passenger cabin is used whole as a spacecraft transferred up by platform lander shuttles and conveyed on the surface by Transport Rover, allowing travelers to go from Earth to the Moon or Mars without ever leaving the relative comfort of their passenger cabin.
MC - MobiCrane
The MobiCrane would combine one or two Transport Rovers with a heavy-duty InchWorm arm with telescoping arm segments and a set of long stabilizer legs. This would be the key heavy lifting and long reach construction tool for the outpost, allowing for Cluster Modules to be removed and placed within large cluster complexes and aiding in the assembly of large structures. They may also be used for assembly/disassembly and the loading/unloading of large launch and lander vehicles.
CEU – Compact Excavation Unit
The CEU would be one of the heaviest and toughest robots employed by the telerobotic outpost and would be critical to the establishment of a permanent settlement through excavated construction. The CEU actually represents a series of excavation machines based on a very rugged low-profile variant of the TR chassis equipped with a rugged roller or tread drive set and a power system designed for a cabled power connection using power hubs connected to a stationary power plant or a high-load segment of the primary outpost grid. Several CEU forms would be common. The most sophisticated would be the Roadheader which features a spiked rotating cutting head on the end of a heavy articulated arm or Hexapod actuator and a short conveyor system for gathering and ejecting loose material behind it. The Roadheader is used in conjunction with a deployable laser guidance system to facilitate high precision cutting. The Dumper is simple dump truck but with a tip-bin that can be tipped in any of four directions. These would follow behind the Roadheader, collecting the tailings from cutting operations. The Drill is just what the name implies, but would be used primarily to install large alloy screw bolts into a cut rock face to stabilize it and to create an attachment grid that allows a light frame system to be attached to the bolts and supporting other equipment and interior fittings. As will be discussed in another section, these would be key to outfitting the interior of the excavated settlement for factory operations and, eventually, comfortable human habitation. Sweepers are sweeping machines akin to a street sweeper with rotary wire brushes, used to clear smaller debris, sand, and dust. They may include a gas jet system supplied by a pressure tank storing inert gas. Dozers combine a front loader and plow on either end and are used as general loose material movers. Excavators feature an articulated arm with a bucket-like shovel mounted on a rotary platform and are used to dig in granular material, usually below the level the machine is resting on. It’s commonly used for digging larger trenches. Cutters feature a cutting device mounted in either vertical or horizontal position. In the horizontal position, they are used to precision cut softer rock. In the vertical position they are used to cut narrow trenches. The Drag Line Excavator is a large area excavation tool. On Earth, these are usually based on massive crane structures that manipulate a bucket shovel on heavy cables. But this form is probably not practical for delivering across space. So the Avalon version would feature a simpler lighter form with two or more CEU base units supporting a truss beam between them, which supports the dragged bucket using a winch system. It would be used for the dredging of large areas of regolith. Many other excavation machines would be devised using the CEU chassis, as this is one of the chief activities of the telerobotic outpost.
IWP- InchWorm Workstation Platform
An advanced form of robot service workstation based on the use of heavy stationary breadboard backplane panels with horizontal leveling posts and vertical mounting connections. This more advanced version of the more self-contained Cluster Workstation Module would create a large breadboard grid backplane for a large number of InchWorm robot arms along with a host of plug-in equipment. Designed to function in the open and heavy enough to support other larger robots driving right onto the backplane panels as though they were Road Tiles, IWPs would be used to create large stationary service facilities for cargo handling and routine robot servicing. They may eventually be used as the basis of a second-generation Cluster outpost building system, serving as a backplane for both InchWorm robots and whole cluster modules serviced by them and moving between them.
ISC – InchWorm Service Complex
This complex of robots would be the basic building platform for stationary automated facilities. Here the usual chassis of mobile robots is replaced with a linked series of breadboard backplane panels supported by a modular frame system that are host to a large collection of plug-in processing systems (smaller and lighter variants of Cluster Modules), equipment, lighting, cameras, sensors, and the like along with a collection of smaller InchWorm robot arms that freely traverse the breadboard grid. Being much lighter, less rugged, more sensitive to dust, and intended for intricate dexterous manipulation, ISCs would be used in conjunction with a shelter structure of some type or would be installed within excavated complexes, the backplane panels being attached to the socket grid bolts installed in all the rock surfaces. All 6 cubic facings would be open to systems installation in an ISC, allowing for the self-assembly of truly elaborate and adaptive production complexes and machine tool workstation. They could even include a packet conveyor system akin to the Conveyor Module used in Cluster outpost complexes. They would also find use in the construction of many facilities such as automated hydroponics greenhouses, an overhead plane of ISC panels serving as lighting mounts and robot service for a planting bed underneath.