In 2017, PISCES received a NASA Small Technology Transfer Research (STTR) Phase 1 grant in partnership with Honeybee Robotics to develop Planetary LEGO Blocks, an in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) technology using volcanic basalt to create interlocking bricks for horizontal and vertical construction applications. PISCES successfully completed the 12-month project in 2018 and shared its results at the 2018 ASCE Earth & Space Conference, drawing praise and interest from researchers and engineers in the Aerospace Community.

ISRU technology takes raw, natively sourced materials and converts them into usable resources. On places like the Moon and Mars, ISRU can extract critical necessities like oxygen, water, rocket fuel and construction materials from the abundant regolith (or surface gravel and dust). Since Hawaii’s basalt closely resembles Martian and lunar regolith in chemical composition and appearance, the blocks have uses for both Earth and space exploration.

The first incarnation of the Planetary ‘LEGO’ Block was created by PISCES during the VT/VL Pad project in 2016. Credit: ‘Ena Media Hawaii.

For the STTR-funded project, PISCES and Honeybee Robotics focused on improving the LEGO design and incorporating an automated construction process to create them. PISCES found the ideal sintering temperature and duration to mold the blocks with superior durability and volume. With help from student interns at PISCES, the block design was re-imagined to incorporate more versatile applications, include vertical and horizontal construction. Honeybee Robotics designed the robotic mechanisms needed to automate the process of building and deploying the blocks.

The first incarnation of planetary blocks was created by PISCES in 2016 for the Robotically built VT/VL Pad project. Creating interlocking basalt pavers, PISCES and its partners robotically constructed an ISRU launch and landing pad and tested the pavers’ durability with a simulated rocket blast. The blocks showed promising results as well as areas for improvement. To continue development, PISCES and Honeybee Robotics successfully applied for a NASA STTR grant and began the 12-month project in August 2017. PISCES is now building upon the research progress it made during the STTR project to refine the LEGO sintering process and mold designs.