Concrete Dreams: Autonomous Terraforming Here on Earth

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Terraforming is always seen more as science fiction than science possible, but the idea involved taking what would be, for humans, a barren planet and transforming it into a habitable one suited for human habitation. In terraforming we create an earth-like planet out of a dusty and rocky one through changing the atmosphere, geology or other planetary conditions. Through chemicals, plant life or technological means we can alter a place and make useful for us. This is not without controversy because we may destroy a new nature that we do not understand. Here on earth people have proposed geoengineering projects that aim to engineer the climate so it doesn’t try to kill us all. Messing with a complex and complicated chaotic but internally balanced system such as earth or Mars seems like a scary thing. But, we don’t have to start with an entire planet right away. Having made pancakes before and knowing that the first one tends to fail I’d personally hate to screw up a planet.

Mars Yard

Just like they drive the Mars rovers around the Mars Yard at JPL before they unleash them on another planet maybe we should conduct a little testing on earth first? How about we take a very cheap part of the world, somewhere where almost no one lives. Somewhere hostile to humans. Cold at night, little vegetation and water and hot during the day. Deserts are dry and support little in the way of life, they get less than 25 CM of rain a year, are arid, have little humidity and make up a fifth of the world´s land area. Now there are animals in the desert and this is a nature that we should preserve as well. But, through desertification almost a billion people are in danger of in effect being overrun by deserts. It is said that the Sahel has caused Africa to lose ¨650,000 km2 of its productive agricultural land over the past 50 years.¨

¨since 1900, the Sahara has expanded by 250 km to the south over a stretch of land from west to east 6,000 km long….dryness is spreading fast in the Sahelian countries. 70% of the arid area has deteriorated and water resources have disappeared, leading to soil degradation. The loss of topsoil means that plants cannot take root firmly and can be uprooted by torrential water or strong winds.¨

This is an unfolding disaster worsening across the decades. One of the most wonderful things that no one knows about is the Great Green Wall, a $2 billion project to plant trees and change local landscapes to stop desertification in its tracks. Along with locals and local governments natural resources will be managed better, pressure on natural areas will be reduced and perhaps desertification will be reduced.

We Can 3D Print That

A number of teams worldwide have been working on swarm robots, construction drone swarms and autonomous construction robots. Some examples include Baubot, Printstones, Minibuilders, Waco, and ETH Zurich bot, drone based construction bots, MIT´s DCP and a super cute Korean robot that measures out construction sites. So imagine for a second a tracked vehicle that is wholly autonomous. It has solar panels to generate power and Stirling engines to harvest power from heat. It scavenges the land for build materials and combines a binder it carries with desert sand to build structures. There’s a central storage unit that has been air dropped in with extra binder, spare parts and more. Periodically drones can bring in more supplies.

But, for the most part Wall E is alone on their part of planet doing his tasks. The robot would have a square kilometer to run around in. A thousand other robots would in parallel be doing the same in adjacent areas. Over the course of two decades the robot would autonomously build structures all across its land. It would build small flood management systems to better harness a small streams´ water, it would build dams and catchment systems for what rainfall there was. It would build cisterns and reservoirs to attract plants and animals. It would build structures to capture dew. It would introduce worms and other beneficial insects and nurture them. It would plant trees, plants and shrubs to combat erosion and create islands of life. Gradually it would terraform this square kilometer, no humans involved. We’d mass produce these robots and make them better all the time so that they could autonomously terraform those parts of the earth encroaching us. Rather than farm the earth this bot would be tasked with preserving and engendering soil so that life would form around it.

Image Robbie Shade. Sergey Pesterev. Vitor Esteves.

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