Northeast students’ robot could turn Marseis into potable water

If humans are ever going to set foot on Mars and live to tell the story, they will need water (among other essentials, of course). But almost all of the H2O on the Red Planet’s surface is frozen, and most of the ice is in the polar regions, which are too cold and dark for astronauts to land there.

In the more temperate areas, NASA recognized Water ice buried under the dusty surface of Mars. Extracting, melting and purifying this H2O to make it drinkable will likely require special tools. So the space agency has invited teams of university-level engineering students to design and build prototypes that could achieve this goal.

A team of engineering students from the Northeast have built a robot to address this challenge. Your device called PARSEC (Percussive And Rotary Surveying & Extracting Carousel) won the RISE award for innovation at this year’s Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Entrepreneurship Expo.

“It’s been an amazing project that continues to bear fruit,” says Sam Hibbard, a third-year mechanical engineering student and team leader on the project since 2019. “When we were announced as one of the RISE awards, it was a big moment.”

(Left to right) Northeast students Jack Wilkins, computer science and physics majors, Jarrod Homer, electrical engineering majors, Ethan Holand and Samual Hibbard, both mechanical engineering majors, make adjustments to the PARSEC (Percussive And Rotary Surveying & Extracting Carousel). ) robot they built for the NASA RASC-AL Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The team previously competed with PARSEC in a NASA challenge under the agency’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts–Academic Linkages to compete against other university teams (RASCAL) program. The timed challenge required the robot to extract water from the ice beneath a Mars-like regolith – the layer of earth, dust, sand, rocks and other rocky materials that make up the planet’s surface.

NASA chooses to solve some tough problems by mobilizing “a team of students, a team of doers,” she says Taskin Padir, Director of the Institute for Experiential Robotics and Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern and faculty advisor on the project. “Students really think outside the box. Not all solutions are part of the final solution that is provided. However, it can contain nuggets from any project.

Northeast mechanical engineering student Ethan Holand works on the PARSEC (Percussive And Rotary Surveying & Extracting Carousel) robot he and his teammates built for the NASA RASC-AL Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

PARSEC works in stages mounted on a turntable. First, the robot drills a hole through the rock layer and into the ice. After learning from previous Northeast teams to join the challenge, the engineering students build their system to rotate as it drills into the material, using a percussive, pounding motion.

“We have previously built a robot that only performs the flapping motion. Once that met this material called Aircrete [concrete with air bubbles in it]it couldn’t break the surface, and we couldn’t collect water in this competition,” says Ethan Holand, a third-year mechanical engineering student and mechanical lead on the project.

The two different movements can handle a wide range of material types, says Holand. Harder materials such as stone and concrete can be broken into pieces by the impact movement. The rotary action works to excavate these smaller pieces as well as softer and looser materials like soil and sand.

Once the robot has drilled a hole in the ice, the melting tool can be used. This tool is essentially a really hot probe. The team designed it to twist and turn in the ice to create a sort of bowl of recently melted water.

A hose is attached to the heating probe that can suck out the liquid that collects at the bottom of the ice tray. The water is pumped into a multi-stage filter system. It first flows through a custom-made mesh system to sift the sediment out of the water — and the team found that a lot of sediment can be transported in the water, Hibbard says. It did cause some clogs in NASA competition, but the team has some ideas on how to avoid this in future iterations of the robot.

After the sediment is removed from the water, it goes into a reverse osmosis system to clean it and make it safe for humans to drink.

Jarrod Homer, systems manager and third-year electrical engineering student did it taste well when the team built the robot after using potting soil as regolith over ice. It meets the requirements for tap water, he says, adding that it tasted like “sparkling water.”

Northeast student Jack Wilkins (bottom right), computer science and physics major, and northeast mechanical engineering student Samuel Hibbard work on the PARSEC (Percussive And Rotary Surveying & Extracting Carousel) for the NASA RASC-AL Moon to Mars Ice & Prospecting Challenge. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The PARSEC team from left to right: Dina Zemlyanker, Samuel Hibbard, Jack Wilkins, Mark Zolotas, Konrad Sroka, Christian Burwell, Ethan Holand, Jarrod Homer, Vedant Rautela, Maria Fountas, Isabella Morizio, Neha Bhattachan (not pictured) and Alex Storrer (not shown).

The system is not just about water. As PARSEC drills through the dirt and rocks, it’s also designed to recognize what type of material it’s hitting. To do this, the software team designed the system to use machine learning to rank materials by hardness to tell the difference between sand and rock, for example. The algorithm receives information from sensors on the drill and microphones mounted on the system.

That approach worked well when the team tested it ahead of the competition, says Jack Wilkins, the project’s digital core lead and a third-year computer science and physics student. But machine learning is only as good as the data it can be trained on, and the material at NASA’s competition was so different from the material the team used during testing that the system didn’t work as well.

That could be a problem if the robot makes it to the red planet, Wilkins says, “because you have no idea what the surface of Mars is like.” So the team suggested that the next iteration of the robot use a materials-based approach Similarity groups rather than labeling them directly.

This robot wasn’t just built on Northeastern’s Boston campus. Students worked from their bedrooms and garages at home when classes were away, in their dormitories and apartments when in-person learning returned, and in hotel rooms during the competition to put the finishing touches on the robot.

“This team has been working through the COVID-era blues,” says Padir. “They worked really hard to solve not only the technical challenges of building the system, but also the logistical challenges [of the pandemic].”

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