‘Robot swarms’ could one day build underground shelters for humans on Mars

In one European team’s proposal for off-world construction, swarms of autonomous, cooperative robots would dig and reinforce underground ant-like colonies for human habitation on Mars. The European Space Agency recently awarded a grant to a team of engineers at the Robotic Building lab at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, to study how robot swarms could build such structures.

This month, the founder and current leader of the lab, engineer Henriette Bier, posted some preliminary details of her team’s concept, which would use Zebro robots to excavate underground housing networks on the red planet, fortified with Martian, 3D-printed concrete.

The project is very much in the conceptual phase, but the technologies to make it possible are coming along on Earth, says Jekan Thanga, a robotics researcher not involved with the Delft team who specializes in off-world technologies at the University of Arizona. But, he says, “doing it off-world is another challenge.

Living several meters underground would block out most of the radiation and provide for a more stable temperature. Tapping into what’s immediately abundant, the concrete could be made onsite by combining cement with some of the excavated dust and rock.

Some robots would dig while others reinforce walls with autonomously generated 3D-printed structures. The proposed underground Martian habitat implemented with unconventional design shapes bottom right), using Zebro rovers , and relying on renewable energy generation . Bier’s team consists of her students and other robotics faculty at Delft. Swarms of robots are useful because they can communicate with each other, do multiple tasks simultaneously, and keep functioning if one member becomes inoperable.

NASA and other groups have looked at different potential shelters on Mars, Thanga says, including ideas for houses made from sandbags or ice. She points to the company ICON, which has built inexpensive concrete homes in just a few days and is looking at 3D-printing structures on the Moon. In 2019, NASA also hosted a 3D-printed habitat challenge in which teams competed to design sustainable housing designs for off-world living. She hopes that furthering these technologies on Earth will lead to advances in off-world technology, and that that off-world technology could in turn lead to further advances on Earth.

Adding in swarm technology could amplify these advances even further. Thanga says humans have been using the logic of swarm societies for thousands of years. “They became invincible that way,” Thanga says.