West Virginia University Receives NASA Grants to Develop 3D Printed Foam and Autonomous Rover Technology


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There seems to be no end to the advancements being made in 3D printing materials, and one type of material that has expanded and diversified recently has been 3D printed foam. Whether it’s made from graphene or ceramic, or other materials, 3D printed foam material imparts several desirable characteristics, such as strength, light weight, and insulating capabilities, that surpass those of other types of material. Those characteristics are especially attractive to those working in the aerospace industry, and 3D printed foam has drawn the attention of NASA, which recently offered $100,000 to West Virginia University to research the material.

3D printed ceramic foam ink [Image: Harvard University]

The grant was given to Majid Jaridi, professor of industrial and management systems engineering, and assistant professor Kostas Sierros. The two West Virginia professors will work with Professor Emeritus John Kuhlman and researchers at the University of Rome Tor Vergata aboard the International Space Station, combining 3D printing with research in the materials science and physics of liquid foams. The goal is to advance the development and production of titanium dioxide foams for 3D printing; the foams will potentially be used in a wide range of applications including solar cells, batteries and radiation shielding.

The foam will be 3D printed on Earth, then exposed to Low Earth Orbit conditions. Once the samples are taken back to Earth, they will be tested for possible degradation mechanisms.

“This degradation data will give significant early insight into the applicability of the TiO2 foam materials for the identified potential space applications before going forward and exploring their printing characteristics under microgravity conditions,” said Jaridi.

The $100,000 for 3D printed foam research was only one of the grants that Jaridi received from NASA; along with Yu Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, he was also given a three-year, $750,000 grant to develop ways to increase the onboard autonomy of planetary rovers. The research will be part of the Mars Rover program, whose mission includes collecting and studying rocks and soils that may hold information about the past presence of water on the Red Planet. In 2020, NASA plans to send up a rover that will cache scientifically selected samples and leave them on the planet’s surface as a series of cache tubes. Retrieving those samples is where Jaridi and Gu’s work on better, more autonomous rovers will come in.

(L to R) Jaridi, Gu and Sierros

“Curiosity, which was launched in 2011, only traveled 5 kilometers during its first 18 months on Mars,” Gu said. “It drives slowly due to its limited onboard computing resources and communication with Earth. The availability of human intelligence and supercomputers on Earth could be leveraged to perform a significant amount of ‘pre-decision computing’ in support of rover onboard autonomy.”

Cataglyphis robot

Jaridi and Gu’s research team, which also includes assistant professors Jason Gross and Victor Fragoso, will work with the algorithms that powered the Cataglyphis robot, which won more than $850,000 in NASA’s 2016 Sample Return Robot Challenge.

“Several capabilities were acquired at WVU during the development of Cataglyphis, such as autonomous planetary rover design, mission planning and control, GPS-free navigation and homing, obstacle avoidance and vehicle health status management,” said Gu. “These technologies will provide a strong foundation to the success of this research project.”

The research team will partner with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mobility and Robotic Systems Section for the project. Initial experiments with the rover will be performed at Tygart Lake, close to West Virginia University, followed by system integration efforts which will lead to more sophisticated rover autonomy demonstrations. The autonomy software that is developed throughout the course of the research will then be adapted to the JPL rover and tested at the JPL MarsYard.

“These tests will serve three main purposes,” continued Gu. “First, they will demonstrate the applicability of the developed algorithms on different rover platforms. Second, they will allow JPL scientists, researchers and rover operators to observe the rover behavior, provide feedback and steer the project technical direction. Finally, some experiments can be tailored to simulate specific mission scenarios envisioned by the JPL Mars Formulation Office to help refine mission design details.”

Eventually, multiple tests will be carried out in Utah’s red rock deserts, which offer a simulation of the Mars environment.

“Mars rover missions are among the highest profile NASA missions, and have generated enormous scientific, engineering and educational impacts. However, academic and industry researchers working at West Virginia University have never played a role in the past and current NASA Mars rover programs,” said Jaridi, who also directs NASA’s West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and the West Virginia Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. “The prestigious NASA Centennial Challenge provided WVU with a national stage to demonstrate our robotics capacity, and this newfound credibility has opened a window of opportunity for interaction with top decision makers at JPL and NASA headquarters. From a broader perspective, having an active rover project at WVU allows students from a variety of research disciplines to find a home to grow their talents and flourish.”

West Virginia University is one of 22 universities selected to receive NASA grants for mission-critical research and technology development projects. Nine of those universities will test their research aboard the International Space Station. Discuss in the WVU forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: West Virginia University/Images: West Virginia University unless otherwise noted]


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