One could never call a lunar rover sleek. Typically weighing hundreds of pounds, they’re studded with solar panels, sensors, cameras and robotic arms. They carry heavy nuclear-powered heaters to help them survive the moon’s frigid, 14-day-long lunar night.
But now, a new breed of lunar rover is headed to the moon.
NASA has awarded a team of robotics engineers a $5.8 million “Tipping Point” contract for further work on a 10-pound, shoebox-sized lunar rover. The team, led by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, has tapped Seattle-based WiBotic and the University of Washington to develop a fast, wireless charging system to help the tiny robots stay roving, even during lunar nights.
The small robots, called CubeRovers, are too small to carry their own solar panels. It’s hard to charge them with cables because the moon’s fine, conductive soil can corrupt electrical contact points.
Enter WiBotic, founded in 2015 by then-University of Washington Ph.D. student Ben Waters and his adviser, Joshua Smith. The company’s charging system — which uses paired antennas and receivers to transfer power wirelessly — is already used in aerial and underwater drones, and autonomous warehouse bots.
“While WiBotic specializes in wireless charging … in all sorts of punishing environments here on Earth — from large warehouses to dusty deserts and corrosive saltwater — this is our first chance to take our technology into space,” Waters said in a statement.
Lunar robots with WiBotic’s technology would still have to get relatively close to a solar-powered charging station to juice up, but they wouldn’t need to plug in or return to precisely the same spot on the moon’s surface whenever they run low on power. Global technology group Bosch is developing the autonomous navigation software that will allow the minibots to find their way to the charging stations — because GPS doesn’t work on the moon.
Eventually, WiBotic hopes to pioneer a wireless lunar power grid to supply energy for manned and unmanned vehicles, Waters said in the statement. But for now, it’s unlikely that the technology would be used on the moon until late 2023 at the earliest, when NASA plans to send its VIPER rover to study ice in the moon’s south polar regions. The mission is part of NASA’s Artemis Program, which aims to put the first woman and another man on the surface of the moon in 2024.