Drilling 'Borebots' could finally reach buried Martian life

Typically, deep boreholes need complex tethers. But now, autonomous bots, which resemble drilling segments, could change the game.
Sade Agard
Artist’s illustration of a Borebot (the red & blue cylinder) being deployed from a rover.
Artist’s illustration of a Borebot (the red & blue cylinder) being deployed from a rover.

NIAC/ Jim Vaughan 

Engineers at Planet Enterprises, a Space Technology Incubator in Washington, have revealed a pioneering drilling concept named Borebots, as outlined in a recent NASA report. 

These Borebots could usher in a new era of scientific exploration by enabling drilling to unprecedented depths of around 50 meters. 

As scientists set their sights on places like Mars' south pole to learn about its ancient water and potential for life, they face the hurdle of extreme depths.

Borebots could change the game by venturing into these depths, helping us uncover even more of Mars' hidden mysteries.

The Borebot fleet

Traditionally, drilling deep boreholes requires complex tethering systems for power and control, resulting in heavy equipment that incurs significant costs.

The team at Planet Enterprises, however, devised a new approach—autonomous drilling bots capable of independent operation without the need for tethering. 

These compact bots, encased in a 64-millimeter (mm) diameter by 1.1-meter-long cylinder — resembling segments of drilling tubing — embody a range of self-contained components, including a battery, drill bit, motor, and electronic system. 

Rovers such as Perseverance (which is currently exploring Mars), or Boston Dynamics Spot robots, could deploy these Borebots. Extending a deployment tube, the rover dispatches a bot to the surface, initiating the drilling process. 

Drilling 'Borebots' could finally reach buried Martian life
: Boston Dynamics Spot robots in a borebots context sketch.

Although reliant on battery power, the Borebot's ability to dig through regolith places emphasis on battery life conservation. When energy dwindles, the bot employs traction spikes to ascend back up the hole it created.

Upon re-entering the deployment tube and safely returning to the rover, the Borebot can be recharged and cleaned while another takes its place. 

Continuous excavation

With this cyclic system, the Borebot fleet could maintain a continuous excavation rhythm, eliminating the need for bulky support machinery.

The engineering team considered several potential challenges and devised solutions, such as utilizing deceased Borebots to power active ones and introducing articulated joints for branching boreholes. 

The comprehensive report includes intricate CAD designs and calculations, spanning power electronics to drill head torque.

While the project's progression remains uncertain, with a lack of apparent further funding, the engineers at Planet Enterprises remain undeterred. 

Their visionary ideas, like the TitanAir concept receiving a NIAC Phase I award in 2023, demonstrate their determination to push the boundaries of space technology

As their pioneering work continues, they're steadily advancing the potential of autonomous drilling and redefining the future of space exploration.

The complete report was published in NIAC and can be accessed here.

Study abstract:

A method is presented for performing deep ice drilling on Mars with an electromechanical drillthat has no physical link to the surface. Whereas cable-suspended electromechanical drills have a tetherto the lander and a system for raising and lowering the drill, this system instead utilizes self-drivingrobots called borebots as the downhole assemblage. This investigation has found several key advantagesto the borebots system, mainly a reduction in single-point-of-failure items like the winch and cable.Instead, several borebots can be used in a sequential mode of operation which evenly distributesmechanical wear and affords time to recharge borebots between trips. This offers the ability to startadditional boreholes at new drill sites when desired, or after a catastrophic loss of downhole equipment.Disadvantages include depth limits due to power storage mass/volume requirements, which can befurther limited by inefficiencies in the borebot drivetrain; and the potential for cumulative wear of theborehole wall which could result in a negative outcome in soft or unconsolidated substrates.