In its half-completed state, “Spider-Bot” looks like a primordial land crab—albeit one that is made of composite plastic rated for conditions harsher than the hottest desert and coldest tundra on Earth.
The bot’s spine is hinged, a feature its developers say will help it climb near-vertical slopes with its arachnid-like legs and adjust to sudden, obtuse changes in terrain.
Spider-Bot will need those abilities because it could one day find itself navigating massive craters on the surface of the moon.
Spider-Bot is a robotic terrestrial drone made mostly of 3D printed parts that is under development by Janesville tech manufacturing startup GLW Technologies, one of the newest tenants at the Janesville Innovation Center.
It’s just one project that the company hopes could wind up in the hands of space explorers on missions to the moon and beyond.
GLW moved from Madison to the Janesville Innovation Center last fall. Late last year, the company launched a new partnership with Colorado aerospace startup Lunar Outpost to design wheel suspension parts for a lunar rover robot, GLW owner Nick Shepherd said.
Lunar Outpost’s robot could land near the moon’s south pole in 2023 under a contract with NASA to collect rock and soil samples from the lunar surface.
NASA wants to learn whether some moon materials contain enough water and carbon to help space explorers sustain long-term expeditions, which could come as soon as 2028 and run for months, even years.
The local company has styled itself partly as a contract manufacturer of niche parts made of 3D-printed materials, which Shepherd said can help other companies build new technologies faster and at a lower cost.
Shepherd and his partners are now delving into artificial intelligence design models that can produce aerospace and medical equipment parts from plastic. The parts have the look and some properties of complex organic matter, such as sea coral or animal bone structures.
“The problem is there’s no way to produce these pieces using traditional methods. You can’t mold them, and if you could, it would be very costly, so the only way to do it is to use 3D printing,” Shepherd said.
He said certain plastics his company uses in 3D printing can form parts with enough strength to withstand super-subzero cold and heat surpassing 170 degrees Fahrenheit—conditions similar to outer space and the moon’s surface.
At a national aerospace conference about a year ago, Shepherd said his company connected with a few major aerospace companies that liked the idea that GLW was making parts with 3D printer technology.
He said that’s how partnerships with Lunar Outpost and other aerospace companies eventually developed.
Shepherd said GLW was in talks this week with an official with NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts who is an expert on solar radiation on the moon and Mars.
“What I love the most about 3D printing is that it can be a massive equalizer in industry, how we can design and print so many different materials,” Shepherd said. “And we do all that with literally a push of a button. Out comes these wonderful potential parts that can do everything from testing if you have COVID in three minutes to operating on a lunar rover on the surface of the moon, and eventually Mars.
“It’s amazing to me that these things are being done in a building in Janesville. Some people think the future’s 20 years down the road. But it’s here, right now.”
Spider-Bot and other projects aside, some plans GLW is tackling are rooted on this planet.
This week, Shepherd and his partners Andrew Maule and Andrew Klinge were working out wiring modifications to the computerized drive attached to their prototype “Windigo,” a six-rotor helicopter drone that is made almost entirely of 3D printed parts.
Shepherd was limited in how much he could say about the new project. But his company hopes to design and build lighter aerial drones with interchangeable, 3D-printed parts that can lift, carry and drop off heavier items, such as ground drone vehicles, among other things.
Shepherd envisions aerial drones being increasingly used in complex, large-scale visual analysis work, such as crop surveying and nuclear power plant inspections.
GLW’s move to Janesville and occupancy in the innovation center has put the company in a better position to grow, Shepherd said. He said the entrepreneurial environment is more inviting and inclusive to his startup than what he experienced in Madison, where GLW started.
“Janesville is not a small pond at all. We haven’t found that. What we have found is that we thought we were bringing something unique to the area, and the people here have listened to us. It’s a very positive environment for us.”