Last week Tesla pulled a “One more thing” and announced they are working on an autonomous robot powered by their Full Self Driving neural net. Many have questioned the companies choice but there could be a clever reason for Elon’s madness. Yes, it includes Tesla Bots on Mars, it’s always about Mars.
Space exploration has always been a partnership between robotics and humans. Usually separately but not always. In some cases, robots and humans have been able to coexist on the International Space Station with the goal to make the busy work-life easier for the crew.
The Tesla Bot, if successfully developed, has the opportunity to be used alongside humans in more than just getting the groceries or mowing the lawn.
Past and current humanoid robots in space
Many robots have made the trip to our further outpost, the International Space Station. Most have had the mission to experiment with humans and machines coexisting in the cramped modules of the station; with the hope to make crewmember’s work-life more productive.
Launched back in 2011, the first humanoid robot to make the trip to the ISS was a partnership between NASA and General Motors. Originally it was not expected to go to space but after development and ground testings, they were so impressed that they rebuilt a model to send to the station.
The long-term goal of NASA’s Robonaut program was to test if a humanoid robot could be developed to assists in low Earth orbit, lunar, and Martian exploration alongside their astronauts. The design had a mostly human look from the waist up and had several lower sections that could be attached. The only lower section to fly in space was a dual leg module that allowed Robonaut to grab onto the station’s hand fixtures and move about the station.
Eventually, Robonaut returned to Earth on SpaceX’s CRS-14 mission after it had problems powering on for a few years. Other than some initial good tests on the station, not much has been mentioned about the program since.
Russian’s FEDOR space robot
The most recent human-looking robot to be sent to the station was Russia’s FEDOR robot. FEDOR has done almost everything from driving cars to shooting guns, space was obviously the next step.
While very limited in what it could do. The robot demonstrated that it could move around the station and answer questions from Russian cosmonauts. FEDOR only stayed a few weeks but it holds the title of being the only non-human to sit in the commander’s seat inside a Soyuz spacecraft. In which it demonstrated being able to read back telemetry data points back to controllers on the ground.
Astrobees and CIMON
While less human-like, NASA and ESA’s Astrobees and CIMON are prime examples of robots that are already helping astronauts in space right now and are extremely close to what Tesla Bot will be able to offer. Both systems are small fan-powered robots that fly around the station autonomously and offer the ability for crewmembers to offload tasks to them.
CIMON, developed by Airbus with IBM, allows crews access to IBM’s Watson AI. The purpose of the project is to remove stress from the astronauts as they work through their busy days. The addition to Watson allows it to help crewmembers to get answers to questions and in the future handle data processing.
NASA’s Astrobees, 3 in total, offer a similar role but are slightly more primitive. These cube robots are tasked with searching for lost tools, monitoring space station experiments, and giving ground controllers a virtual eye when situations arise.
Both robots are still up on the station today, continuing to help crews answer their questions and find their misplaced tools.
Another great example of offloading routine tasks from humans to robots is Canada’s Dextre robot on the outside of the space station. While not autonomous, this robot has saved NASA and its partners days or more of time by taking over the routine maintenance of the station. While using its two human-like arms, it can work on replacing components of the station and remove items from unpressurized compartments on arriving spacecraft.
SpaceX’s goal for Martian colonization
For someone that doesn’t know much about Elon Musk, SpaceX may look like a normal launch provider. SpaceX offers their rockets to governments and companies wishing to send their creations to space, but SpaceX pushes for the goal of making life multi-planetary, a mission held dear by its founder and the employees that work there.
With the development of their Starship launch vehicle, we are seeing the first signs that the companies mission is its new direction. With the goal to launch the first crewed flight to Mars in 2026, building a Martian colony will take a lot of work. Both Musk and NASA have expressed the idea of robots doing the dirty work. With dozens of Tesla Bot like robots to build the beginnings of human exploration on Mars.
How Tesla Bot could fit into SpaceX’s mission on Mars
While the 2026 date is extremely far-fetched, Musk will not stop until he has put a human colony on Mars. Getting the hostile environment of Mars ready for humans to visit will take a lot of work, that’s where Tesla Bot steps in.
A fully autonomous robot that can set up structures, power sources, aid in setting Starship up to begin refueling all while using the same tools the human explorers will use could be a godsend.
Tesla’s expertise in artificial intelligence and batteries gives them a head start in developing the robot. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Tesla and SpaceX collaborate. A Tesla Roadster SpaceX package has been teased by Musk for a while and Starship prototypes have used Tesla’s battery packs and motors to move its flaps.
The work being done at Tesla and the mission of SpaceX coexist in a weird steam-punk-like future that only Elon himself could dream up.
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