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FLOAT — Flexible Levitation on a Track

Ethan Schaler
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

FLOAT on lunar surface.
Artist’s depiction of the FLOAT lunar railway system to provide reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the Moon. Credits: Ethan Schaler

We want to build the first lunar railway system, which will provide reliable, autonomous, and efficient payload transport on the Moon. A durable, long-life robotic transport system will be critical to the daily operations of a sustainable lunar base in the 2030’s, as envisioned in NASA’s Moon to Mars plan and mission concepts like the Robotic Lunar Surface Operations 2 (RLSO2), to:

  • Transport regolith mined for ISRU consumables (H2O, LOX, LH2) or construction
  • Transport payloads around the lunar base and to / from landing zones or other outposts

We propose developing FLOAT – Flexible Levitation on a Track – to meet these transportation needs.

The FLOAT system employs unpowered magnetic robots that levitate over a 3-layer flexible film track: a graphite layer enables robots to passively float over tracks using diamagnetic levitation, a flex-circuit layer generates electromagnetic thrust to controllably propel robots along tracks, and an optional thin-film solar panel layer generates power for the base when in sunlight. FLOAT robots have no moving parts and levitate over the track to minimize lunar dust abrasion / wear, unlike lunar robots with wheels, legs, or tracks.

 FLOAT tracks unroll directly onto the lunar regolith to avoid major on-site construction – unlike conventional roads, railways, or cableways. Individual FLOAT robots will be able to transport payloads of varying shape / size (up to 33 kg/m^2) at useful speeds (>0.5 m/s), and a large-scale FLOAT system will be capable of moving up to 100,000s kg of regolith / payload multiple kilometers per day while consuming <40 kW of power. FLOAT will operate autonomously in the dusty, inhospitable lunar environment with minimal site preparation, and its network of tracks can be rolled-up / reconfigured over time to match evolving lunar base mission requirements.

In Phase 1, we will establish the fundamental feasibility of designing a FLOAT system with meter-scale robots / km-scale tracks, to support human exploration (HEO) activities on the Moon, by accomplishing the following 4 Major Tasks:

  1. Define mission requirements (payload mass / size / quantity, transport distance, power, etc.) from NASA lunar base studies.
  2. Simulations of FLOAT system with meter-scale robots / km-scales tracks in lunar conditions to refine performance estimates.
  3. Experiments on existing cm-scale, FLOAT-like robots to study the most pressing questions about FLOAT system feasibility.
  4. Size FLOAT system to match mission requirements using predicted lunar performance from simulations and experiments.

2021 Phase I, II, and III Selections