Lockheed Martin, in alliance with General Motors, is developing a new fully-autonomous lunar rover that could be used for NASA’s Artemis program.
It’s a fitting homage to the original Apollo rover, in which GM was also involved in its development, yet this version will incorporate the very latest technologies and materials both onboard and in its design.
Some elements of the rover’s autonomy system’s early design and development are done at Lockheed Martin’s state-of-the art R&D facility in Palo Alto, USA. The Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center (ATC), is equipped with a host of cutting-edge technology, including a full 3D printing lab for in-house part production.
Lockheed Martin engineers are testing a multitude of applications designed for the lunar rover, 3D printing parts for prototyping and proof of concept including embedded systems housing, sensor mounts, and other custom parts.
“We’re in the very early stages of development and the rover we have at ATC is a testbed that we designed and developed in-house,” says Aaron Christian, senior mechanical engineer Lockheed Martin Space.
“This affordable modular testbed allows us to make quick changes using 3D printing to change the design for other applications, whether it be military, search and rescue, nuclear applications and just extreme environment autonomy needs.”
Christian adds that 3D printing lets the team test parts affordably, iteratively, and modularly. One of the parts printed for the rover was a mount for a LIDAR, a sensor that helps determine the proximity of objects around it.
Broadly used in self-driving vehicles, Lockheed Martin uses LIDAR in a lot of its autonomy projects. The mount was designed to sit on the rover, a completely modular robot system, so it was 3D printed in ABS which allows it to handle more extreme conditions than typical PLA.
The mount also allows engineers to continuously swap out the LIDAR with different sensors, such as a stereo camera, direction antenna, RGB camera, or a rangefinder. It has a complex organic shape to it, which can be difficult to achieve via traditional machining. The mount also has a lot of access to ensure proper airflow to keep the part cool and temperature-regulated on the robots.
The embedded electronics housing is designed to go inside the rover or in other robots at the ATC. The housing was developed to protect the electronics from anything that could potentially fall on them. Although it was 3D printed in PLA, due to its hexagonal shape, it offers solid strength. Its design also lends itself well to the open airflow needed to cool down the system while still protecting the device.
Many of these parts are produced on the ATC’s MakerBot Method X 3D printers. Its ABS allows for end-use parts, designed to withstand desert heat, UV exposure, moisture, and other environmental conditions. In combination with Stratasys SR-30 soluble supports, parts printed with MakerBot ABS are designed to provide a smoother surface finish and allow for more organic shapes.
“The MakerBot Method X produces dimensionally tolerant parts right out of the box – and for all sorts of projects, you can print multiple parts that can mate together,” enthuses Christian.
“At ATC, we have multiple MakerBot printers that help with quick turnaround times. I will design a part, print it, and have it in my hand hours later. This allows me to quickly test the 3D-printed part, identify weak points, adjust the model, send it back to print overnight, and then have the next iteration in the morning,” adds the senior engineer, concluding that 3D printing reduces iterative design wait times for a part down from weeks “to hours”.
In addition to producing prototypes, Lockheed Martin is looking to 3D printing for future production parts for space-going platforms.
“A big advantage for testing and flying 3D-printed parts for space applications is that it simplifies the design. You can create more complex shapes. It reduces the number of fasteners needed and part count, which is a huge cost savings because that’s one less part that has to be tested or assembled,” notes Christian. “This also opens up for future in-situ assembly in space. You have designed, printed, and tested the part on Earth.
“Now you know that, in the future, you can 3D print that same part in space because you have shown that the material and part work there.”
Manufacturing in space is expensive but appealing for future applications and missions. Now, bulk materials can be flown into space to be used to 3D print multiple parts and structures, rather than flying each part out individually.