Wireless Charging for Robots on the Moon

Article By : Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio

WiBotic has announced a partnership with Astrobotic, Bosch, and the University of Washington to develop and market wireless charging solutions for robots on the Moon as part of a NASA ‘Tipping Point’ project...

WiBotic has announced a partnership with Astrobotic, Bosch, and the University of Washington to develop and market wireless charging solutions for robots on the Moon as part of a NASA ‘Tipping Point’ project. The $5.8 million contract was awarded by Astrobotic as the main contractor to overcome the challenges associated with charging robots on the Moon’s surface. Astrobotic’s robot, CubeRover, will be the size of a shoebox and will run autonomously and charge wirelessly on the Mooon.

In an interview with EE Times, Ben Waters, CEO and co-founder of WiBotic, demonstrated his enthusiasm for this selection. WiBotic’s technology is supporting many markets in wireless charging such as military, industrial and commercial robots in all kinds of environments on Earth. Waters pointed out that the opportunity to work with NASA may open up a promising road for Wibotic for space technology, especially in the technology for the exploration of the Moon.

Exploring the Moon
The lunar landscape is characterized by large dark patches extending over large areas covered with dust, which was probably created by the impact of meteorites on the ground. This lunar dust is identified with the term “regolith”. The craters and holes, which are found all over the surface of the moon, may have been formed either by the fall of meteorites or by volcanic action during the period of the consolidation of this satellite. Other particular features on the lunar soil are the furrows, which could have formed for various reasons: a decrease in volume due to cooling, leakage lines of gaseous materials, channels dug by molten lava or faults; the ridges and hills could be evidence, of an old lunar volcanic activity.

After many years of intense engineering design, Astrobotic’s CubeRover is about to take the flight to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The CubeRover is designed to operate in a simple and cost-effective way on the surface of the Moon.

Over the years, Astrobotic has refined and marketed the CubeRover product line offering easier lunar access for smaller scientific investigations. The rover is also designed to be integrated into multiple lunar landers for travelling to the Moon, facilitating its inclusion in a wide variety of future space missions.

The engineering challenges faced by the entire team were mainly to regulate the rover’s temperature in the event of extreme weather fluctuations and to ensure that the rover maintained optimal mobility. The teams created a robust thermal design capable of withstanding temperatures ranging from around -270 °C to +150 °C in space. The result is a very lightweight planetary rover with a camera used for orientation in the lunar environment.

Numerous tests are underway, in particular, battery tests in a simulated environment to emulate the mechanical and thermal properties of the Moon. These tests will also provide a measure of the surface irregularities that the rover can navigate. The drop tests will ensure that the rover is not at risk of tipping over during its deployment from a lander to the lunar surface.

Figure 1: CubeRover (Source: Astrobotic)
Figure 1: CubeRover (Source: Astrobotic)

Wireless Charging
The traditional technology for lunar landers is based on solar arrays or small nuclear reactors. Small robots are not big enough to transport their dedicated power supplies and must be connected to their larger counterparts by electric cables, thus limiting mobility. As sensor complexity increases, robots regain more power and further exacerbate the problem.

“One of the primary missions for NASA in these future deployments to the Moon is lunar night survival. When there is no sun, solar panels are less viable and the lunar night on the Moon can last for up to 14 days. Which means, without other charging solutions, robots would not be able to operate for extended periods of time,” said Waters.

WiBotic‘s fast proximity charging solution enables smaller robots to charge wirelessly from lunar landers – equipped with docking stations or base stations located throughout the moon’s surface.

 

Figure 1: WiBotic’s waterproof OC-262 Onboard Charger (Source: Wibotic)
Figure 1: WiBotic’s waterproof OC-262 Onboard Charger. Click to enlarge the image (Source: Wibotic)

 

Figure 2: WiBotic’s standard receiver antenna in waterproof enclosure (Source: Wibotic)
Figure 2: WiBotic’s standard receiver antenna in waterproof enclosure. Click to enlarge the image (Source: Wibotic)

“Space has many unique challenges, but some of the requirements also align with things we plan to develop for systems here on earth. Namely, those challenges are environmental conditions, heat, radiation and regolith,” said Waters.

He added, “Most of these deployments may not operate in those extremes, but the electronics need to be carefully designed to support a much wider temperature range than here on earth. Fans and active cooling of course are not viable in the vacuum of space, so passive cooling and dissipating heat through conductive techniques must be implemented. Radiation limits are much higher on the Moon and so components must be carefully selected that are radiation-hardened. And lastly, lunar dust, or regolith, is much finer and more conductive than dust here on earth. So mechanical enclosures must be designed with great care. But this also points out some of the great advantages to wireless charging in space. Things can be completely sealed up and don’t require exposed contacts or connectors, which can deteriorate more quickly in space due to these extreme conditions. Also, we have learned from prior deployments of robots on Mars, that surviving the lunar night, dust storms and high temperatures is very difficult for solar panels. Wireless charging enables robots to explore places at times that they have never been able to before.”

Wireless charging allows the robot to operate even during the lunar night. The exposed contacts and connectors has proven to be not reliable on lunar surfaces where the regolith is finer and more conductive than dust here on earth. In this case, the robots can charge without contact even if they do not engage in perfect alignment. In this way, all human operations are greatly simplified, made inefficient even by the limited suits that astronauts should wear in the lunar environment. All this increases productivity, thus maximizing highly valuable time in space and on the lunar surface.

Waters said that WiBotic’s vision is to pioneer a lunar wireless power grid to provide power to a wide range of manned and unmanned vehicles, regardless of battery type, voltage or power level required.

A new frontier is opening up in space as the primary objective is to offer energy to robots which are able to move freely. In other words, an infrastructure of wireless charging stations and energy management software to be distributed over the entire lunar surface is needed. And who knows, this might be soon crucial even for exploration of other planets.

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