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The team’s autonomous robots (named Nebula) each have roughly 15 Markforged 3D printed parts. Image via Markforged.

Marked solid 3D printer helps the Group CoSTAR robots from NASA JPL within the DARPA Subterranean Problem

Markforged, maker of metal and carbon fiber 3D printers, is helping a team meet the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) underground challenge. The project aims to develop fully autonomous robotic systems that can traverse underground environments such as caves while exploring the planet.

The team in question, named CoSTAR, is made up of 60 engineers from around the world from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Luleå University of Technology in Sweden (LTR).

Together with nine other teams, CoSTAR is taking part in the three-year challenge that will ultimately be a starting point for underground exploration of the moon, Mars, and possibly even the moons of other planets.

Markforged is CoSTAR’s supplier and sponsor for the Subterranean Challenge. Thanks to its 3D printers, the team was able to make quick iterations and corrections on the autonomous robots throughout the competition.

The team’s autonomous robots (called Nebula) each have around 15 Markforged 3D printed parts. Image via Markforged.

3D printing of additional components on request

The Subterranean Challenge consists of three routes – a tunnel, a city and a cave circuit – and a final event, all of which have very different terrain and conditions. The team’s autonomous robot must be able to successfully control these various scenarios, and CoSTAR must also perform quick on-site maintenance of all damaged parts and quickly go through the designs to continuously improve the robot.

Using Boston Dynamics spot robots, the team had to quickly design and manufacture additional components such as brackets and housings to ensure they could complete the competition’s circuitry, and chose 3D printing as the vehicle to do so.

Members of the CoSTAR team turned to Markforged’s 3D printers and Eiger software to make strong and lightweight functional parts for the robots, and found that the 3D printed mounts and brackets actually outperformed their aluminum counterparts. The team also produced a 3D-printed cage for the robot’s $ 7,000 lidar sensor using Markforged printers and the company’s continuous carbon fiber reinforced material. In total, the team’s robots, called Nebula, contained around 15 3D printed parts.

The team took a Markforged 3D printer to the first two rounds of the challenge they had set up in their hotel rooms the night before and printed parts overnight for use on site the next day. While the 3D printed parts took some bumps during the challenges, they have reportedly been able to be reused without fail.

The team 3D printed a cage for their lidar sensor, which took a few hits but was never damaged.  Image via Markforged.The team 3D printed a cage for their lidar sensor, which took a few hits but was never damaged. Image via Markforged.

Trailblazer for underground planetary exploration

More than just a competition, the DARPA Subterranean Challenge could provide a way to explore subterranean environments on the Moon and Mars. The team hopes to enable NASA JPL missions of this nature in the future to investigate signs and potential for life in these alien environments.

NASA’s interest in autonomous robots for space applications continues to grow after previously investigating the feasibility of using soft robotics for space exploration and assembly and commissioning the SEEKER project in 2019, which involved two free-flying autonomous robots , which were developed for the inspection and monitoring of spacecraft in space.

As part of the project, product development service provider The Technology House used Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) 3D printing technology to produce four high-performance thrusters for the cold gas propulsion system in the Seeker robots. These engines were supposedly the first certified plastic 3D printed parts in “real space”.

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The image shown shows that the team’s autonomous robots (named Nebula) each have about 15 3D printed parts marked. Image via Markforged.