Jan 11, 2016 | By Kira
While here on Earth, we’re getting closer and closer to the commercial launch of the first ever road-ready, consumer 3D printed car, Audi has teamed up with an extremely ambitious team of scientists based out of Germany to create the first ever moon-ready 3D printed vehicle, the Audi Lunar Quattro. As part of Google and X Prize Foundation’s $30 million competition to land a privately-funded robot on the moon that is capable of driving at least 500 meters on the lunar surface to create a ‘new era of affordable access to the Moon and beyond,” Audi and the Part Time Scientists team have created a functional prototype rover, 3D printed out of aluminum and titanium to withstand the extremely harsh and unique conditions of lunar driving.
Though 16 teams from more than 10 countries from around the world are competing in the Google Lunar X Prize challenge, Part Time Scientists is the only competing time to have won a global premium end-consumer brand as a lead sponsor, which has helped them become 1 of five teams favored to land their rover on the moon as early as Q3 2017. Yes, you read that right—while NASA and the ESA have launched what already seemed like ambitious if not audacious plans for Mars and Moon missions, respectively, those are still 5 to 15 years away. Yet if all goes well for Audi and the Part Time Scientists, we’re looking at 18 months till liftoff.
Thankfully, a functional prototype is already in the works, and was revealed today at the Detroit Auto Show, where its four-wheeled, Wall-E-esque body zipped around on the showroom floor. In order to ensure that the Audi Lunar Quattro is rugged enough to withstand a lunar landing and then continue to face the elements throughout its journey, Audi and the Part Time Scientists have been working with metal 3D printing technology, constructing nearly the entire rover out of 3D printed aluminum and titanium.
3D printing also enabled the scientists to manufacture special hollow structural components to route the wiring—something that would not be possible with CNC milling or other traditional manufacturing techniques. “It's not possible from the axis of freedom," said Robert Böhme, CEO of PT Scientists. "The parts are like one millimeter thick.”
It makes perfect sense that Audi would sign-up to help the Part Time Scientists with their 3D printed rover. Recently, the German carmaker revealed plans to use metal 3D printed parts in production cars. Specifically, Audi has been experimenting with 3D printing using a fine metallic powder comprised of steel and aluminum beads less than half the thickness of a human hair and denser than regular cast items, manufacturing geometrically complex parts that just wouldn’t be feasible—cost or time-wise—with normal manufacturing methods. To prove it’s capabilities, Audi created a fully-drivable 1:2 scale 1936 Auto Union Type C race car almost entirely out of metal 3D printed parts.
Beyond using 3D printing on Earth to construct the vehicle, in the long run, the team envisions developing a technique for 3D printing directly on the moon, using lunar soil, also known as regolith. 3D printing repair parts, or even other functional robots, would save considerable time, money, and energy compared building them on Earth and then having to send them up to the surface—not to mention regolith already contains an abundance of aluminum, titanium and magnesium making it a near-perfect building material.
Another idea from the Part Time Scientists’ team is to ‘melt’ the ultra-fine lunar soil into a kind of autobahn highway that lunar robots could quickly and efficiently traverse, however that idea is considerably more long-term.
In order to win the X Prize and successfully complete their mission, the Audi Lunar Quattro has to overcome three main tasks: to traverse the 384,000 kilometers between Earth and the moon and safely land on its surface; to drive 500 meters across the rugged, regolith-covered terrain; and finally to capture and send never-before-seen HD-images of the moon back to Earth to gain invaluable insight for future lunar missions.
Of these three tasks, the second is likely to be the hardest. It’s one thing to get your car stuck in the dirt while on a roadtrip, or taking a shortcut through some country lanes, but it’s entirely another case if that happens on the moon. With no ‘Lunar CAA’ in place, getting stuck in the extremely-fine lunar soil—which is a thousand times finer than quartz sand—means Mission Abort, and years’ worth of work and preparation down the drain.
In addition to Audi’s metal 3D printing expertise, their 35 years’ experience of creating four-wheel drive systems for some of the most reliable consumer vehicles on the road certainly didn’t hurt either. In order to avoid the worst case scenario, the Part Time Scientists and Audi engineers have developed a special Quattro Drivetrain—based on the same technology Audi uses in its Earth-bound cars—that can detect wheelspin on a shaft and transfer more torque to another axle, ensuring more torque on the ground and minimizing the risk of getting permanently stuck on a slope. So far, the team has tested their “Asimov Rover” in volcanic crater landscapes on the island of Tenerife with very promising results.
For the Part Time Scientists, the real goal of this project is not simply to win the X Prize challenge—though of course that would be an excellent bonus. Instead, their real focus is on giving mankind an unprecedented opportunity to finally access the Moon’s secrets, and to use 3D printing technology to open up an entirely new world for exploration.
“For us it’s about high engineering ingenuity, not the prize money,” said Böhme. "Can you name any other case where such a large [non-aerospace] company decided to say 'we want to get involved in private space'?”
“If you bring the right technology back to the Moon, you can pave the way for more exploration,” he continued, "and not just exploration, but also to find a commercial benefit for future missions. It's really hard to justify a lunar mission now, even if you get it down to $30 million."
The Part Time Scientists’ plan is to land as close as possible and then travel to the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) left behind by Apollo 17, which has been sitting inactive for 43 years already. Capturing HD photos of the LRV, the Audi Lunar Quattro will be able to transmit invaluable information about how the LRV’s materials have been able to hold up after all these years. Landing and driving 500 meters just to prove it can be done isn’t worth the effort, according to Böhme. Instead, he wants to use 3D printing—both on Earth, to get to the moon, and on-site, to create new parts, to find a way to potentially “live off the land.”
“That's why we want to focus so much on science, we want to show that there is the value. There is value that you can take away from being on the surface of the Moon. It's important to show what could be done."
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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