NASA Selects Honeybee Robotics for 2 STTR & 5 SBIR Awards

honeybee_roboticsNASA has selected Honeybee Robotics for two Small Business Technology Transfer Research (STTR) and five Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase I awards.

The selected proposals include:

  • STTR: Robotic ISRU Construction of Planetary Landing and Launch Pad (Partnered with Michigan Technological University)
  • STTR: In-Situ Spectroscopic Europa Explorer (Partnered with SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center)
  • SBIR: The Stinger: A Geotechnical Sensing Package for Robotic Scouting on a Small Planetary Rover
  • SBIR: Planetary Vacuum Cleaner for Venus and Mars
  • SBIR: Dust-Tolerant, High Pressure Oxygen Quick Disconnect for Advanced Spacesuit and Airlock Applications
  • SBIR: Strut Attachment System for In-Space Robotic Assembly
  • SBIR: High Temperature Joint Actuator

Descriptions of the research projects follow.

Robotic ISRU Construction of Planetary Landing and Launch Pad
Subtopic: Regolith Resources Robotics – R3

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Research Institution
Michigan Technological University
Houghton,. MI

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Ph.D. Paul Susante

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Apollo 15 Lunar Module rocket plume excavated regolith which sandblasted at speeds in excess of 1000 m/s the Surveyor 2 lander 200 m away. A Curiosity rover instrument was permanently damaged during SkyCrane landing on Mars. Any future human surface missions to planetary bodies covered in regolith (e.g. Mars, Moon) would need to address ejecta created during landing or takeoff.

The intent of this project is to develop a fully robotic system for building landing pads on planetary bodies. The system will excavate in-situ regolith, sort rocks according to needed particle sizes, and layout a carefully designed landing/launch pad apron to lock in the small regolith particles.

To that extent, Honeybee/MTU propose to design and build a robotic tool to perform the following 3 actions: Pick up or excavate rocks, sort the rocks in three size ranges, and deposit said rocks in three layers with the purpose to stabilize the fine regolith in the secondary apron zone of Lunar and Martian landing pads for repeated landings and take-offs.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA applications include building landing pads on planetary surfaces covered in regolith such as for example Mars and the Moon. Rocket thrust during landing or take off can damage not only surrounding infrastructure, robots and astronauts but the launch vehicle itself.

Several subsystems developed under this project will also be beneficial to in Situ Resource Utilization (e.g. extraction of volatiles such as water for fuel H2/O2, drinking water, and Oxygen). In particular, a mining rover would be applied to mining resources, while sorting technology would be needed to remove (as opposed to collect) rocks above certain size. Size sorting for ISRU is extremely important since large rocks cannot be processed in the ISRU reactors nor cannot be used for 3D printing applications.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Non-NASA space related applications would include mining of resources for commercial gain. As such, companies such as Shackleton Energy, deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, and even SpaceX would take advantage of this technology.

Non-NASA/non-space applications could include robotic fabrication of temporary helicopter pads and airplane landing strips in desert environments such as Somalia for bringing humanitarian aid. Robots could be air-dropped ahead of the resupply airplanes or helicopters to construct needed landing zones.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
  • Heat Exchange
  • Metallics
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Verification/Validation Tools

In-Situ Spectroscopic Europa Explorer (ISEE)
Subtopic: Detection technologies for extant or extinct life for use on robotic missions

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Research Institution
SETI Institute Carl Sagan Center
Mountain View, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Ph.D. Pablo Sobron

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The US Congress has instructed NASA to include a lander component in the next Europa mission. The mission has a target launch date of 2022, and its primary goal will be to search Europa?s icy surface for evidence of life that may persist within the ice shell or subsurface ocean. The Europa lander study specifically recommends a combination of a mass spectrometer and a Raman spectrometer to investigate Europa’s habitability. Current flight prototypes, by design, existing planetary Raman instruments cannot detect organic compounds on Europa down to the required 1 ppb.

We propose to build and critically test the in-situ Spectroscopic Europa Explorer (iSEE), a next-generation prototype of a compact, arm-mounted Raman Spectrometer. iSEE utilizes an innovative combination of light source, adaptive spatial coding optics, and detector. It integrates a high-performance signal processor and data processing algorithms that enable unprecedented measurements: in-situ chemical identification and quantitation of complex organic compounds, including pre-biotic compounds; biomolecules; minerals; and volatiles. iSEE also provides sample context, including ice composition, crystallinity, and ice phase distribution. Our project is responsive to ‘T8.03 Detection technologies for extant or extinct life for use on robotic missions.’

Our Phase I R&D will develop and integrate key subsystems of iSEE and evaluate its performance using standards and natural samples, particularly with respect to the detection of organic compounds and biomarkers. We will demonstrate the feasibility of iSEE to perform quantitative analysis of organic content, minerals, and volatiles at or < 1 ppb in solid matrices. The technical objectives of Phase I are: 1) Validate iSEE’s optical path; 2) Build an iSEE breadboard system; 3) Determine performance parameters; 4) Demonstrate the capability to detect organic compounds and biomarkers in biologically lean natural samples.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Our innovation significantly improves instrument measurement capabilities for planetary science missions such as Discovery, New Frontiers, Mars Exploration, and other planetary programs. It has potential to become a critical new instrument in NASA’s exploration toolbox that can replace already-flown in-situ sensing technologies in future mission opportunities.

The following missions highlighted by the Planetary Science Directorate (PSD) will specifically benefit from iSEE: a) landed exploration missions to Venus, Moon, Mars, Europa, Titan, comets, and asteroids; b) sample return missions to Moon, Mars, comets and asteroids. In addition, iSEE may be used to identify and map available planetary in-situ resources, and to spur the development of autonomous in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) devices for robotic and human missions.

iSEE will enable in-situ chemical classification and quantitation of complex organic compounds, minerals/ices, and volatiles. Therefore, iSEE will enable measurements responsive to three of the five science objectives of the SMD’s PSD, as stated in the NASA Science Plan.

Specifically, iSEE will enable all three investigations required to understand the habitability of Europa?s ocean through composition and chemistry, the priority objective of the proposed Europa lander concept, as developed by a NASA-commissioned Science Definition Team

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

In Phase I we will focus on Europa exploration applications. However, iSEE responds to critical challenges at the scientific/engineering boundaries of highly sensitive in-situ sensing; in particular, the challenges involved of characterizing materials, qualitatively, quantitatively, in real-time, and non-destructively (i.e. without sampling). Thus, iSEE has high potential to impact the following areas with broad social and economic implications:

Health and environment monitoring, Forensic analyses, Ocean sensing, Oil & gas exploration and development.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Optical/Photonic (see also Photonics)
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Visible

The Stinger: A Geotechnical Sensing Package for Robotic Scouting on a Small Planetary Rover
Subtopic: Robotic Systems – Mobility, Manipulation, and Human-System Interaction

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Kris Zacny

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Flawless operation of planetary mobility systems, excavation, mining and ISRU operations, regolith transport and many others depend on knowledge of geotechnical properties of the soil. Knowing, for example, the soil strength and its density and in turn fundamental soil parameters such as friction angle and apparent or true cohesion, will guide the design of the wheels and excavation systems and help to determine anticipated excavation energies, time, and forces.

Nearly all planetary rovers to-date have experienced some type of problem due to the unknown nature of planetary regolith. The MER Spirit mission ended when the rover bogged down. The MER Opportunity rover barely recovered from a sand trap. MSL Curiosity spent over a month trying to find a safer route around a sand dune. Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle got stuck and had to be lifted and placed on firmer ground while Lunokhod managed to recover from a ‘near’ stuck position.

Honeybee Robotics, therefore, proposes to design and test a prototype geotechnical tool called the Stinger, that combines soil bearing strength measurements with shear test measurements. The Stinger instrument consists of a percussive cone shear-vane penetrometer capable of measuring near-surface and subsurface soil properties to a depth of 50 cm or greater. The cone deployment is percussive, because this approach reduces penetration forces, an important consideration when a tool is deployed in a low gravity environment from a small vehicle. During percussive cone deployment, the soil bearing strength is measured. The shear vane is initially housed inside a cone and it is pushed out whenever shear tests are required. When the shear vane is out, the cone-vane is rotated to measure shear strength of the soil. This measurement can be performed at any depth.

Based on results of the breadboard testing, a preliminary design for a TRL6 Stinger GeoTool will also be realized.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The Geotechnical Tool is imperative to gather essential engineering data to determine bearing strength, density, and trafficability of regolith. This is most useful to establish the stability of massive structures, set up resource mining operations, and survey exploration sites and routes. In addition, soil physical properties are used to help interpret surface geologic processes and to constrain the origins and formation processes of the soil. The Stinger is, therefore, not only a necessary surveying and exploratory tool, but a valuable scientific instrument as well, which would prove to be most useful for lunar missions and for ongoing exploration on Mars. In addition to penetrometer applications, the percussive mechanism could be used for rapid excavation (via an impact-actuated digging tool), setting anchors into the ground, and for rotary-percussive drilling systems. The system will be designed with a goal of minimizing system mass so that it might be mounted on small platforms like NASA’s Centaur2 and also be human-deployable. Honeybee Robotics is a NASA-approved flight vendor and is therefore in the unique position to take a mechanism, such as that proposed, from low TRL to TRL 9, a successfully deployed flight unit. Honeybee has designed and built three critical flight components for Mars flight missions: Rock Abrasion Tool for 2003 MER, Robotic Arm Scoop for 2007 Phoenix Mars Mission, Sample Manipulation System and Dust Removal Tool for 2011 Mars Surface Laboratory.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

There is a general need for systems that provide rapid and more reliable soil characterization and the Geo Tool could provide this. Some of the applications include oilsands bearing strength assessment (this is required by law in the state of Alberta), environmental monitoring of industrial sites, agricultural surveys, and soil remediation. The military has expressed the nead for a rapid near-surface soil characterization tool, something that can be carried and deployed by a single soldier, with the data acquired and processed by someone with no or little training. Currently we are in the process of negotiating a contract that could start as soon as April of 2016.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
  • Metallics
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Tools/EVA Tools

Planetary Vacuum Cleaner for Venus and Mars
Subtopic: Robotic Mobility, Manipulation and Sampling

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Kris Zacny

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The majority of planetary bodies of interest to exploration are covered with a layer of granular material called regolith. These bodies include the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Asteroids, Comets and moons of Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. Surface missions to these bodies, would most probably require some type of a sampling system to capture samples and deliver them to in-situ instruments or sample return containers.

Honeybee Robotics, therefore, proposes to develop a robust on-demand sample acquisition and delivery system enabled by a high efficiency blower. The system will be akin to conventional vacuum cleaners on Earth, but adapted for Venus conditions. As such, the main technology areas will include development of the following four subsystems: Blower, Cyclone, Nozzle and Tubing; with the Blower being most critical.

The target mission will be Venus In Situ Explorer (VISE), however, the technology could be adopted to Mars missions. We will use CFD FLUENT to perform blower and cyclone analysis simulating Venus’ atmosphere and gravity, as gravity affects cyclone performance. We will fabricate and test a blower under relevant pressure conditions in a high pressure chamber. We will also fabricate a cyclone and suction tubes. The system will be assembled to allow end to end testing. Further, we will develop a TRL 5/6 design for the pneumatic system, which would be fabricated and tested in Phase 2

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

There are several missions to Mars and Venus that could take advantage of this technology. The missions in the New Frontiers class could include Venus In Situ Explorer and in the Flagship class could include the second mission in the Mars Sample Return Program, Mars Ascent Vehicle. It is prudent to have a backup sampling system adjacent to the MAV, and the proposed technology could serve as a back up sampler.

In the HEOMD directorate, In Situ Resource Utilization missions to Mars could also use this technology.

In addition, certain subsystems could be used to augment traditional sampling systems such as drilling. For example, a blower could be used to clean holes of cuttings during drilling and in turn not only improve drilling efficiency several fold, but the same system could be used to capture and transfer cuttings in real time.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The sampling technology system could be used by commercial companies that are interested in mining and in-situ resource utilization. The ultimate goal of SpaceX is to establish human presence on Mars. As such, SpaceX would directly benefit from mature sampling and mining technologies.

Other non-NASA applications include robotic acquisition of volatiles as well as soil and liquid samples from hazardous environments, chemical spills, nuclear waste, oil spills. Examples include samples from nuclear waste sites as well as disaster sites (Fukushima nuclear reactor).

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Aerodynamics
  • Analytical Instruments (Solid, Liquid, Gas, Plasma, Energy; see also Sensors)
  • Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
  • Metallics
  • Pressure & Vacuum Systems
  • Pressure/Vacuum
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Tribology

Dust-Tolerant, High Pressure Oxygen Quick Disconnect for Advanced Spacesuit and Airlock Applications

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Jason Herman

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Future human missions to Mars, the Moon, Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and other planetary bodies will require a spacesuit equipped with a compact, lightweight, reliable, dust tolerant, high pressure oxygen quick disconnect (QD) for astronaut extravehicular activity. The next generation of QDs must transfer high pressure oxygen (HPO2) between the vehicle and space suits under adverse conditions, including an extreme range of temperatures, in a high vacuum, and amid pervasive dust. Currently, no QDs deliver O2 at sufficient pressure, nor are they able to mate in the presence of dust.

Honeybee Robotics proposes to develop a dust tolerant, high pressure oxygen quick disconnect suitable for advanced spacesuit and airlock applications. This system will integrate form, fit, and function of existing and new subsystems for umbilical quick disconnects, leveraging both the design work completed to-date by Oceaneering (provided by NASA) and the dust-tolerant QD connector prototypes that Honeybee developed to TRL 6 for spacesuit applications for NASA’s Constellation program. These QDs have been successfully tested at 6×10-6 mbar coated in JSC-1AF lunar dust simulant. Materials integral to the dust-tolerant system can perform acceptably at -160⁰C.

The Phase 1 effort will focus on modifications necessary to apply existing dust-tolerant electrical connection technology (US Patent No. 8,011,941) to high-pressure oxygen delivery. This will include developing and performance testing a model in the presence of significant amounts of JSC-1A lunar simulant. A successful end point will demonstrate the design’s capability to transmit gas over the interface and prevent dust from entering the gas stream over multiple mate/de-mate cycles. A design path will be laid out for Phase 2 to address remaining technical challenges and create higher-fidelity hardware suitable for testing at NASA.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Dust tolerant, high pressure oxygen quick disconnects will be critical to future exploration missions beyond LEO. Such an interface will find extensive applications in EVA systems designed to operate on the surface of Mars, the Moon, or in the particulate torus around planetary moons and near-Earth objects.

The dust-tolerant, high pressure oxygen quick disconnect commercial applications may include resource prospecting and long-term human settlement.

The same interface used in an oxygen quick disconnect can also be used for other fluid transfers in dusty environments, including potable or cooling water, or waste CO2, for extended EVA operations.

The dust tolerant QD can also be used for fuel; rovers or other vehicles that require liquid recharge of consumables, as would be the case with fuel cell-powered systems, will require a dust-tolerant fueling QD interface. This interface could be integrated into manual or autonomous recharge systems.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Future commercial space missions into LEO or beyond will require life support equipment for all travelers, and requirements for an oxygen quick disconnect interface will likely be similar to NASA standards. Currently, no commercial dust tolerant, high pressure oxygen quick disconnect system exists, and development of this technology will be attractive to commercial entities that need high-reliability life support systems for crewed missions. This includes any lunar exploration or settlements that seek to harvest resources from the moon.

Beyond direct interfacing with primary life support systems for human exploration, a dust tolerant, cryogenic fluid repeatable mate/de-mate interface could find use in fuel transfer for planetary vehicles. Rovers, whether autonomous or for human transport, may require refueling to recharge consumables, such as in the case of fuel cell-powered vehicles.

Finally, autonomous spacecraft may require a dust tolerant interface to transfer fluid such as fuel, coolant, or other cryogenic fluids during on-orbit docking. This type of mating will likely be required for future modular spacecraft that are assembled on-orbit.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
  • Isolation/Protection/Shielding (Acoustic, Ballistic, Dust, Radiation, Thermal)
  • Protective Clothing/Space Suits/Breathing Apparatus
  • Tools/EVA Tools

Strut Attachment System for In-Space Robotic Assembly
Subtopic: In-Space Structural Assembly

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Jason Herman

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The size of space systems is currently limited to payload envelopes of existing launch vehicles. Due to this and the customized nature of satellites, existing space systems are very costly to stand up. Nor are they designed for repair, upgrade, or reuse to amortize the cost over multiple missions. As missions get further from low-earth orbit (LEO), the dangers of human extra-vehicular activity (EVA) for manual on-orbit assembly or repair increases making robotic assembly of large structures very desirable.

Honeybee Robotics (Honeybee) proposes to develop a Strut Attachment System (SAS) that provides a common electromechanical connection architecture for robotic on-orbit structures assembly. The SAS will enable the creation of networked space frame structures with a strut/node architecture; enable payload docking to those structures for power and data transfer; and enable the creation of reusable, serviceable, and upgradable vehicle systems in support of lower cost space exploration. The SAS will leverage technology that Honeybee developed for robotic satellite servicing (DARPA Satlet Grasper Tool | TRL-5).

The proposed Phase 1 technical approach is to modify the Satlet Grasper Tool and receptacle designs to increase the connection’s strength, rigidity, and power/data transmission capability. The SAS will consist of the Strut Attachment Mechanism, Strut Receptacle, and Node. The Phase 1 project will result in a Strut Attachment Mechanism and Strut Receptacle at TRL of 4 at the end of Phase 1 and TRL 5-6 at the end of Phase 2.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The SAS will be an enabling technology for future exploration missions by providing a core technology for in-space robotic assembly of:

  • Extended operation space exploration vehicles
  • Planetary exploration surface habitats
  • In-space transportation hubs

Future exploration missions either in Earth orbit or to other planets will require large space vehicles. The optimal architecture for in-space operations may not look like a traditional space vehicle like the Space Shuttle or Apollo-era vehicles, and will be too large to assemble on the ground and launch into space directly in-space assembly will be necessary. In fact, the International Space Station is a perfect example of such a space asset. Combining the enabling capabilities of robotically assembled, networked space frame structures, with other in-space robotic technologies being developed such as the in-space refueling work going on at NASA Goddard and the Phoenix robotic servicer/tender going on at DARPA, leads to the capability to assembled large structures on-orbit, connect multiple modules to a common structure, and create very large space systems that are not possible with today’s methodology.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

There exist multiple defense and commercial applications for the SAS including:

  • Large deployable aperture arrays to address the exponential increase in global mobile data consumption
  • GEO hosted payload platform to provide less expensive access to space for science, defense, and commercial customers

DARPA is interested in the development of a persistent platform in GEO that would provide common resources (e.g. power, communications, attitude control) to a large number of hosted payloads. Scientists, commercial entities, or defense customers many times desire an on-orbit capability, but the required investment to develop and launch the asset simply outweigh the benefits or do not mesh with budgetary constraints. What if on the payload needed to be developed and there was inexpensive access to GEO via commercial payload delivery systems such as DARPA’s Payload Orbital Delivery (POD) architecture? A GEO hosted payload platform could provide significant value to numerous payloads. This GEO platform is likely to be a networked space frame structure ? and the proposed SAS is key to realizing that architecture. This concept has significant scientific, defense, and commercial value both for payload providers (customers) as well as the GEO host provider from a revenue perspective.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Spacecraft Design, Construction, Testing, & Performance (see also Engineering; Testing & Evaluation)
  • Structures

High Temperature Joint Actuator
Subtopic: Extreme Environments Technology

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Andrew Maurer

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Future Venus or Comet mission architectures may feature robotic sampling systems comprised of a Sampling Tool and Deployment Mechanism. Since 2005, Honeybee has been developing extreme-temperature motors, position sensors, brakes, and gearboxes, resulting in multiple successful demonstrations of component-level technologies under Venus-like environmental conditions. An important nextstep toward a viable Venus or Comet surface mission architecture is to combine these components and raise the TRL of the total sampling system including the Deployment Mechanism. The proposed work will leverage component development to date by integrating extreme temperature actuators with functional elements to demonstrate a complete multi-DOF Deployment Mechanism suitable for candidate surface missions.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Extreme environment actuator technology allows for creation of sampling systems, robot arms and mobility systems that operate outside of an environment-controlled platform on the surface of Venus, the Moon, Comets and small bodies. Robotic exploration of high temperature terrestrial volcanoes and hydrothermal vents is also of interest to the science community.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Other potential applications include gas turbine starter/generators for aircraft engines, actuators for turbine fuel and steam control, inlet guide vane positioning, bleed heat valve control and remote subsea system actuation, expendable launch vehicle thrust vector control and gimbaling of engines and adaptable aerodynamic surfaces, and furnace tending for glass/ceramic manufacturing.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Actuators & Motors
  • Deployment
  • Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)