Small robot will accompany astronauts on lunar journeys

Engineers are developing the Biobot system. It will be a robot on an all-terrain chassis, capable of accompanying astronauts when they go to the surface of the Moon. It should be a help and an additional life support system for them.

Biobot concept. Source:

Companion robots in space

In science fiction works, there is often a robot alongside people on other planets to help them. But is it so fantastic? Project Biobot, which received a NIAC grant in 2018 – why not use a companion robot to carry support equipment during human extravehicular missions to other planets?

If you watch footage from the Apollo missions, you can see how uncomfortable it is for astronauts to bend over to pick things up. Also, these extremely physically developed and gifted people seem to fall down a lot, given how coordinated they are on Earth. This is probably due to the 61-pound backpack on their backs that keeps them alive.

Astronaut life support system

Each astronaut had to wear a life support system on their spacesuit to maintain conditions inside the suit that allowed them to breathe and not boil to death. This portable life support system (PLSS) weighed almost as much as the astronauts. It drastically changed their center of gravity, moving it from its typical internal location to somewhere behind the shoulder blades. This limited the astronaut’s mobility and, even in light lunar gravity, limited the amount of time he could participate in spaceflight before becoming exhausted.

Alternatively, in microgravity, extravehicular exits occurred using hoses connected to a larger life support system inside the space station or shuttle. This has proven successful, but operating such an “umbilical” requires significant overhead – typically another astronaut operates it instead of the person performing the spacewalk. Given the importance of productively utilizing all of a professional’s time, it would be best to refuse such assistance.

Dr. David Akin from the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Maryland took all of this into consideration, and his solution was Biobot. The final project is a small robot capable of following an astronaut during extravehicular exits and attaching itself to his spacesuit using an umbilical cord operated by the robot. As part of the NIAC grant that Dr. Akin received, he and his team considered potential design tradeoffs and developed a working prototype of the system. 

Benefits of the Biobot system

Biobot takes the heavy weight off the astronaut’s back, freeing him or her from having to carry it around and moving the center of gravity to a more familiar place. It can also allow PLSS developers to add components that would otherwise be considered unsuitable for placement in the backpack itself, such as radiation cooling systems. 

The Biobot can also serve as a platform for storing collected samples or tools needed for a mission. As a last resort, an astronaut might even take a ride on it in emergencies. Because it is mobile, the umbilical cord that normally ties an astronaut to a base station is no longer an issue, and since it is designed to move over any terrain, it should be able to keep up with the astronaut.

It is clear from some of the photos in the final NIAC report that the engineers working on the project enjoyed developing the system. They successfully demonstrated a proof of concept for the basic functionality of what they expected from a biobot. They also plan to continue development, including a testing phase on NASA’s Rockyard planetary surface simulator. One day, astronauts exploring the lunar or Martian surface may have a robotic companion with them that can both entertain and provide vital support.

According to