Space may be the final frontier, but when human exploration of other planets becomes a reality, we will need to find ways to build homes and shelters there, much like we do for ourselves here on Earth.
Doing so, however, means overcoming an incredible set of challenges, including an inhospitable environment, the prohibitive cost of sending building materials from Earth, and the lack of the most basic resources, like water, on the planet.
What this calls for, according to Kurt Maldovan, Digital Delivery Director at Jacobs, is new and innovative applications of additive manufacturing that can reduce the amount of time and materials needed to build the structures that future missions to other heavenly bodies will require.
We recently sat down with Maldovan to discuss his team’s work figuring out novel ways to create building materials from Martian and lunar regolith, autonomous additive construction systems, and other truly Space Age technologies worthy of humankind’s ambitions.
During our discussion, he detailed how some of the technologies they’ve developed for applications that are literally out of this world can also be applied in our own backyards.
“The desired outcomes in space and here on Earth are the same – namely, the ability to rapidly produce structurally sound and adaptable habitats at a lesser cost and with local materials,” he said.
Our conversation went like this:
GovDesignHub (GDH): First, tell us about yourself and about Jacobs. What excites you most about the new frontiers of digital design?
Kurt Maldovan: Jacobs has just gone through a rebrand, and I’m so excited about our deep focus as a solutions firm. Today we have two lines of business – People and Places Solutions and Critical Mission Solutions – by which we deliver a more connected, sustainable world. Digital design, engineering, and delivery are key parts of my role as a technologist at our approximately 52,000 person global firm.
My day job has always been grounded in Building Information Modeling (BIM), but it goes much deeper in respect to emerging technology and collaborative solutions for our Federal and Environmental Solutions practice.
In our practice, “digital” has taken on an elevated role whereby we are thinking and acting on connectivity, coupling our domain expertise though digital capability. What excites me most is not the idea of new digital design frontiers, but that Jacobs has embraced this change and is beginning to challenge today, and reinvent tomorrow in everything we do.
GDH: You recently spoke at Autodesk University about how 3D printing is a “gamechanger” for NASA’s Mars ambitions. What solutions has Jacobs helped NASA develop for those future missions? Why are those important capabilities on the Red Planet?
Kurt Maldovan: The Jacobs Space Exploration Group (JSEG) has worked with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for over 30 years. From a purely 3D additive manufacturing standpoint, Jacobs retains planetary geologists, engineers, project managers, and programmers to support these efforts.
Some of our main contributions come in testing the material simulants that mirror the regolith found on the Moon and Mars. This regolith or inorganic material becomes the basis for aggregate in the planetary cementitious material. The JSEG team is pursuing a waterless binder due to the scarcity of water on the Moon and Mars as well as enabling a reduction in upmass.
We are also working closely with the University of Southern California and the Contour Crafting Corporation to develop the Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures (ACES-3) full-scale additive construction system, which is based on advances made during the joint Army Corps of Engineers-NASA Additive Construction with Mobile Emplacement (ACME) project, which helped develop a better fundamental understanding of additive construction, including a continuous feed system and study of the building materials that could be harvested on the Moon or Mars.
Because traveling to Mars takes between six and nine months in Earth time, once you are there you need to be self-sustaining. Using additive construction technology will allow the habitats to be built rapidly and potentially robotically prior to astronauts setting foot on the Red Planet.
In addition to the 3D additive manufacturing contributions, Jacobs and our video engineering team at Johnson Space Center have developed a portable, HD camera system capable of 10 hours of continuous, rechargeable battery life for long-duration space walks at the International Space Station.
GDH: You also discussed how those solutions have innovative use cases here on Earth. Why are fabrication techniques bred for space useful to bring home? What benefit do they have over traditional methods?
Kurt Maldovan: The desired outcomes in space and here on Earth are the same – namely, the ability to rapidly produce structurally sound and adaptable habitats at a lesser cost and with local materials.
Additive construction is very agile and allows us to manufacture structures in an accelerated timeframe and with heightened cost savings across a number of different use cases including civil infrastructure, airfield pavement and repair, to military base and low cost housing, and disaster relief.
For instance, a simple military housing unit on a base can be accomplished in one day versus the usual five days, and when deployed to address residential housing needs, you’re looking at being able to use 3D printing to construct a typical house with half the material of a normal build and requiring fewer personnel, making for more efficient use of time and resources.
GDH: With all of these use cases in mind, why are Autodesk solutions the solutions of choice? What about them help you drive these innovative 3D printing techniques?
Kurt Maldovan: It’s really all about the environment they have set up in the Autodesk Technology Centers, where they have created partner-specific maker-spaces or research labs. Our engagement has been similar to a research grant or the research process.
Essentially, we sat with Autodesk’s research planners, posed our research project and were critiqued, and were given a notice to proceed, including an area in their Boston Technology Center to enable further incubation of our ideas.
Because we have so many parallels with respect to the technology, we saw the Autodesk Residence as an opportunity to adapt JSEG’s full-scale design and prototype at a smaller scale using clay-based or cementitious materials.
Our research question was simple: what do we need to do with one of our current BIM designs to convert it so that a scaled building comes out the other side of the printer? While I’ve simplified the question, being embedded in the Technology Center allows us access to Autodesk’s software program developers and other teams working on additive manufacturing and 3D printing. We’re truly excited about what the future holds for 3D additive manufacturing.
Want to see more of Kurt’s thinking on how additive manufacturing solutions can solve problems here on Earth? Stay tuned for the second half of our conversation.