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OffWorld's Smart Robots Could Swarm Solar System to Help Astronauts and Settlers

Artist's impression of OffWorld robots working in swarms on the lunar surface.
Artist's impression of OffWorld robots working in swarms on the lunar surface. (Image credit: OffWorld)

WASHINGTON — Future lunar explorers could have smart robots ready to help them thanks to OffWorld, a company that plans a fleet of industrial machines for destinations all over the solar system.

The California-based company already has some undisclosed Fortune 500 companies paying it to deploy robots on Earth for applications such as mining. And while the tech is all early stage, OffWorld said it plans to go a lot further.

While it's still too early to tell when the robots would leave our planet, OffWorld CEO Jim Keravala told at the International Astronautical Congress that he would be pleased if future robotic generations could assist NASA's astronauts when they land on the surface of the moon, a mission scheduled for 2024.

Related: Moon VIPER: NASA Wants to Send a Water-Sniffing Rover to the Lunar South Pole in 2022

"We're building up our skills by deploying these robots [now] in mines, construction sites, tunnels and other infrastructure scenarios. As we build that learning, that will give us an unprecedented level of insight … as to how the hardware operates in different environments," Keravala said.

He paused, then made a reference to possibly assisting with NASA’s plans to land humans on the moon. "At some point in time — I hope it's before we have our first woman and man on the surface — we will be deploying our lunar variants to the lunar surface."

The "master plan" of OffWorld involves using smart robots, which can learn from experience, or engage in "machine learning" in computer engineer parlance. The robots would do the heavy work to get settlements ready for humans, OffWorld said. 

The first thing OffWorld plans to do on the moon is extract water ice for applications ranging from producing drinking water for humans to making rocket fuel.

Artist's impression of OffWorld robots working in swarms on the lunar surface.   (Image credit: OffWorld)

"They operate in swarms, collaborating together, making decisions on their own," Keravala said. This allows them to adapt to the environment; in a terrestrial mining area, for example, "they can sense where the minerals and ore exist … and act accordingly."

Powered by solar electricity, these robots would be able to learn on the fly with little human intervention. They would also include modular construction so that similar parts could be used for different kinds of robots — whether in space or on the ground. Eventually, these robots could even self-replicate by building other robots using the local resources available on the moon, Mars or other destinations.

The team has 26 people but is growing fast. OffWorld is in the process of establishing an office in Luxembourg, a country particularly friendly to space-resource development, in order to focus on the extraction of lunar volatiles such as water.

OffWorld also plans to heavily involve space engineers and coders in its development. The company will open up a "marketplace" next year to showcase standard interfaces and outputs that will work with customers from all over the world.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.