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Looking — and Drilling — for Life on Mars


Honeybee Robotics tests its robotic drill system in preparation to explore other planets.

To find evidence of life on other planets, we need to do more than simply look for it. We need to drill for it. If there is life on Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa, after all, it is likely embedded underground or in ice. So such a mission into outer space requires a special drill and a test bed to prove the equipment can effectively penetrate the surface of the planets while operating autonomously.

With this challenge in mind, Honeybee Robotics took its Planetary Deep Drill System to USG Corporation’s gypsum quarry in Salton Sea, Calif. The location, with layers of gypsum rock, is a close equivalent to planetary surfaces. The test of the 16-foot-tall drill part is just one part of Honeybee’s broader Mars exploration program, which aims to understand the planet and the capabilities needed to send humans to Mars around the year 2030.

“Our biggest challenge, aside from autonomy, is geological uncertainty,” said Kris Zacny, Honeybee Robotics’ vice president and director of exploration technology, in an interview with Popular Science. “The water on Mars and Europa isn’t clean; it’s essentially a salty brine which can change freezing phases from -50C to -70C. Then there could be embedded rock, layers of rock or layers of fallen meteorites, and the drill has to be able to go through any of those variations.”

Oh, and there’s also the issue of gravity — or the lack thereof, as Mars has one-third of the gravity of Earth, which means the drill has to be designed to work without relying on weight to force down the drill bit.

Many more tests are needed, but this one small step in robotic drills may be one giant leap for man — and all — kind.

How use of robotic technology is sweeping across all industries
We asked nearly 60 industrial end-users and system integrators about their use of robotic technology. This report details the trends they identified and how to compare different types of robots.
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How use of robotic technology is sweeping across all industries
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