Innovators Around the World Help NASA Improve a Moon Digging Robot

RASSOR Bucket Drum V3, by Kyle St. Thomas, was the third place winner in the RASSOR Bucket Drum Challenge. This design narrows drum sections to keep the scoop count high while also only having one scoop per section, which increases captured regolith.
Credits: NASA

With its Artemis program, NASA will quickly and sustainably return to the lunar surface. To prepare for sustainable operations on the Moon, NASA is advancing technologies needed to explore and work on the lunar surface. This includes developing capabilities to “live off the land,” which requires being able to dig up resources in the lunar soil, or regolith.

Supporting these efforts, researchers and engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida have designed a robot called the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot, or RASSOR. The robot does not rely on weight or traction for its digging force. Instead, RASSOR digs using movable rotating hollow cylinders, or bucket drums, on opposing ends of the robot that spin so the excavation forces balance out. As RASSOR digs, the bucket drums fill with regolith. The robot can then take the regolith to a different location and empty its bucket drums by spinning them in the opposite direction. Because of this design, a lightweight robot like RASSOR could dig even with the reduced gravity of the Moon.

Regolith Trap, by Caleb Clausing, was the first place selection in the RASSOR Bucket Drum Challenge. This design is an innovative solution to capturing regolith with a passive door. The design had considerations for making it dust tolerant and the approach will be able to hold large amounts of regolith.
Credits: NASA

To improve the robot’s design, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) reached out to the public with the RASSOR Bucket Drum Design Challenge. Hosted on GrabCAD, a website people can join and post 3D models, the challenge opened to the public in March with the goal being to find new designs capable of filling more than half of the bucket drum’s volume with regolith, while maintaining size and weight requirements.

Judges from Kennedy’s Swamp Works who developed RASSOR and have expertise in in-situ resource utilization – the technical term for using local resources – reviewed the more than 350 entries submitted by individuals from around the world.

The award recipients are:

  • Regolith Trap by Caleb Clausing will receive $3,000 for first place. This design is an innovative solution to capturing regolith with a passive door. The design had considerations for making it dust tolerant and the approach will be able to hold large amounts of regolith.
  • RASSOR Bucket Drum by Michael R will receive $2,000 for second place. This design has a very simple, but promising sectioned baffle system that should be very effective at capturing regolith.
  • RASSOR Bucket Drum V3 by Kyle St.Thomas will receive $1,000 for third place. This design narrows drum sections to keep the scoop count high while also only having one scoop per section, which increases captured regolith.
  • NASA Bucket Drum Double-Helix by Stephan Weißenböck will receive $750 for fourth place. This entry uses an innovative internal and external helix design that is likely to have a very high fill ratio.
  • Lunar Kinetics by Clix will receive $250 for fifth place. This design has an innovative door mechanism that not only uses gravity but the weight of the regolith to actuate.
The second place winner in the RASSOR Bucket Drum Challenge.

RASSOR Bucket Drum, by Michael R, was the second place selection in the RASSOR Bucket Drum Challenge. This design has a very simple, but promising sectioned baffle system that should be very effective at capturing regolith.Credits: NASA

The challenge connected with the professional designers, engineers, manufacturers and students that makes up GrabCAD’s community and the large number of entries made it one of the platform’s most popular challenges to date. Jason Schuler, a robotics engineer in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs at Kennedy and one of the judges, was impressed with the effort and level of detail for the entries.

“This was a very successful NASA GrabCAD challenge,” Schuler said. “We’re excited to evaluate and test these concepts further as we continue to develop and mature RASSOR.”

One reason for holding the challenge was to reach audiences outside of the space industry. By engaging with the public with crowdsourcing challenges, NASA is able to find new ideas and solutions for real-world problems which can accelerate research and technology development. This challenge resulted in some novel design approaches that inspired the team with many designs that had at least one unique feature. The challenge reached a world-wide audience, and had winners from the United States, Canada, Austria and Romania.

“The winning entries were a mix of innovative features and simple, robust designs,” Schuler said. “We will need to perform additional simulation and testing, but we think these bucket drums will be very effective capturing large amounts of regolith.”

NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiativewithin STMD, which champions technologies needed to live on and explore the Moon, funded the challenge. NASA Tournament Lab(NTL), part of STMD’s Prizes and Challenges program, managed the challenge. The NTL supports the use of public competitions and crowdsourcing as tools to advance NASA research and development and other mission needs.Learn more about opportunities to participate in your space program through NASA prizes and challenges at www.nasa.gov/solve.

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