Who doesn’t want to go to space?
The ever-growing list of companies—from SpaceX to Jacobs—would seem to make that answer rather obvious. But that range also gives you a sense of the broad spectrum of technologies and expertise that we as humans need to master if we are to become a spacefaring species.
One of the foremost considerations that goes into that enterprise has to be the amount of construction that an interstellar voyager must count on if he or she is to survive on other planets, and it is here where Michael Bentley, Design Director for AI SpaceFactory, told us that his company could contribute to our species’ journey into the final frontier.
“We felt that there was a place for architects to contribute to our multi-planetary future,” he told us recently. To that end, the AI SpaceFactory team has innovated numerous solutions, including a novel vision for Martian architecture and construction techniques that have moved the ball forward, which NASA recognized as the winner of their 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge.
In order to talk in more detail about how AI SpaceFactory got its start as a multi-planetary design and construction company, the thinking behind its award-winning solutions, and why those solutions could be used on Earth, we sat down with Michael Bentley. This is what he had to say:
GovDesignHub (GDH): Tell us about yourself and your experience in the industry. What drew you to AI Space Factory? Why is its approach to AEC so unique?
Michael Bentley: SpaceFactory was founded by colleagues with decades of experience designing supertall buildings and complex mixed-use projects in global cities around the world. When we founded SpaceFactory, we set out to create a company which could devote its resources to research and development, especially to the task of preparing us to become a space faring civilization. We were inspired by the huge leaps that companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were making, along with other tech companies – and we felt that there was a place for architects to contribute to our multi-planetary future. I think this puts us in a unique position where we are able to take the lessons of designing and building in space and apply those to construction on our planet and vice versa.
GDH: AI SpaceFactory bills itself as a multi-planetary construction technology company. How far off are we from doing construction on other planets? Why is the work that you’re doing now important for when we are ready to do construction on other planets?
Michael Bentley: The NASA Centennial Challenge was designed to innovate new approaches to construction on Mars, specifically 3-D printing using in-situ resources and robotic construction. A few months later and NASA has already turned their sights on the Moon, with the ambition to land astronauts on the surface in 2024 and establish a permanent lunar base by 2025. The experience that we gained from the NASA challenge is directly applicable to the Moon – after the challenge we actually went outdoors and began printing an eco-habitat named TERA on the Hudson River. TERA actually stands for “terrestrial analog”; the project was an opportunity for us to test and advance our technology and material in a broader range of climate conditions. Now we’re better prepared, based on these Earth experiences, to adapt technology to deal with the extreme conditions we’ll find on the Moon. Specifically the huge fluctuations in temperature, the lack of available power, low gravity and the challenges of printing in a vacuum. SpaceFactory will also begin investigating new thermoplastic compounds where we can mix our plastic binder with lunar regolith to come up with material which is ideally suited to printing on the Moon.
GDH: Last year, your company won first place in the NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge. Why did NASA set this task?
Michael Bentley: The NASA challenge had two main goals. The first was to drive innovation and creative thinking about how to build on Mars – which I think it’s succeeded in doing; our Marsha project set a new vision for habitat design, by being a tall, vertical structure (essentially a cylinder) which hadn’t been seen before. The second goal of the challenge was to kickstart the kind of trickle-down effect. The Apollo missions showed the great impact that the space program could have on the U.S. economy. I think the Mars program is even more challenging and could have an even greater impact. It could take decades to come to fruition, but the Centennial Challenge gives NASA a chance to help companies advance their development and their innovation. It certainly worked for us; we were able to take our research and our experience from the NASA challenge and transform ourselves into a construction technology company. We’re using what we learned from the challenge and applying that to the construction industry on Earth, with the hope that we can make it more sustainable and better for our planet.
GDH: Among the challenges of off-planet construction that you listed in your Autodesk University presentation were off-grid power generation, autonomous construction, and in-situ resource utilization. Why are those so important to consider in Martian construction?
Michael Bentley: It’s important that any Martian construction method be efficient in terms of its power usage because it’ll be very difficult to find power. Solar panels will be very inefficient to transport, so at first, we would probably need to use some kind of small kilopower reactor with limited energy available, making it critical to use power in an efficient way. In terms of in-situ resource utilization, because Mars is such a long and costly journey, it would simply be too expensive to bring building materials from Earth. It’s much more efficient to harvest Martian regoliths and convert them into a building material on the surface of the planet. Finally, autonomous construction is critical because the habitat will have to be prepared in advance of the astronauts’ arrival. The robotic technology will have to be autonomous, such that a team of robots can harvest material compounds, print structures, be able to self-diagnose any challenges and fix them along the way. The radio signal delay from the Earth is about 20 minutes or greater, which means there is simply no effective way to control robots from Earth. They’ll have to be able to make decisions and build independently.
GDH: How did the solutions you developed help surmount those constraints?
Michael Bentley: I think with two critical aspects of the Marsha design: the material and the form. We chose a thermoplastic rather than a concrete because we felt that water would be too precious a resource to use for construction when it could be used either for life support or for creating fuel. We also reasoned that while curing, the water in concrete would sublimate in the thin and cold Martian atmosphere. We therefore opted to go with a thermoplastic and basalt fiber composite, thinking that it would be a more efficient and practical building material.
Second, we designed a tall cylindrical form, which is an efficient pressure vessel, ideal for containing an Earth atmosphere for the astronauts to live in, and uses a minimum amount of material. It’s also a practical shape for 3D printing, in that it creates a small footprint which is better at mitigating uplift stress caused by the pressure inside the habitat. It’s also fairly straightforward: once you establish the printer location, you continue to print vertically and then cap the building form with some kind of a mechanical cap. In this case, we designed an oculus, which also brings natural light into the top level of the habitat.
GDH: Because large-scale off-planet construction doesn’t seem likely in the near future, what are some of the benefits that these technologies can have closer to home?
Michael Bentley: In designing a construction technology for Mars – such an extreme environment where energy use, material resources and autonomy are so precious – we found huge potential for a more sustainable way of building on Earth. Using local, renewable energy, of course, would be a great advantage, while robotics represents huge potential for accurate, efficient material use and addresses challenges of skilled labor shortages. Finally, the biopolymer 3D-printing material is remarkable for its strength, its recyclability, and its ability to actually integrate waste plastic (which we know there’s an abundance of here on our own planet) and reduce landfill waste. It’s very exciting. We think these three elements together suggest the potential to really transform the way we build on Earth – the future of the building industry will be far more sustainable.
GDH: Lastly, in thinking about something as revolutionary as Martian architecture, why were Autodesk solutions the right tools for the job? How has being a part of the Autodesk community helped you to come up with such novel technologies and solutions?
Michael Bentley: We entered the NASA challenge as architects looking to go to space, but through the project and our residency at the Autodesk Technology Center in Boston, we transformed ourselves into a space-facing construction technology company. We were all comfortable with design software like Revit, but converting our design vision into a language that the robot could understand and building our printing system were new challenges. We found all those resources, expertise and support available within the Autodesk ecosystem, and that was a great benefit to our team.
To learn more about AI SpaceFactory, click HERE.