As forward-thinking research powerhouses, Caterpillar and NASA both continuously work to develop next-generation technologies. Both are also home to some of the greatest engineering minds on the planet, so joining forces in collaborative research was a logical step. This collaboration delivers value to Caterpillar customers here on Earth and to NASA’s future space explorers.
Caterpillar’s relationship with NASA began about a decade ago. In January 2004, the federal government announced a new program to develop technologies that would eventually lead to a permanently-manned base in space. These technologies were to be tested on the Moon prior to being used in missions to Mars. The use of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)—meaning living off the land instead of shipping supplies (water, air, etc.) from Earth—represented an integral part of the plan. This would require resource extraction from the Moon or Mars for converting ice to water and splitting the water for oxygen to be used in life support systems and in rocket fuel. The program also contained plans for infrastructure development like landing pads, roads and buried habitats for protection from radiation.
To that end, NASA expressed interest in mutually beneficial technology development programs. Caterpillar’s Research & Advanced Engineering (RA&E) team in the Product Development & Global Technology division reviewed their technology-development priorities and, discovering significant alignment with NASA’s goals, welcomed the collaboration.
RA&E Director Dr. Lou Balmer-Millar said, “Our two teams had many common technology objectives, so a joint effort to make those objectives a reality more than made sense.”
Of this collaboration, Caterpillar Engineering Manager and NASA liaison Eric Reiners said, “NASA, Caterpillar and many people benefit from this relationship. For Caterpillar, the joint research has resulted in machinery and tool advancements that offer added value for our customers around the world. NASA is using the research to adapt technologies for space environments. So, the advancements generated in our work together hold great value for our customers on Earth and potentially for pioneers in future planetary explorations.”
The joint research efforts focused on the areas of robotics and semi-autonomous/remote-operator systems, both of which minimize the danger humans might face in hazardous environments on Earth or in space. The teams developed technologies for planetary infrastructure development with remote operators and positioning technology that supplies location information without the use of GPS, among other collaborations.
These research programs concluded successfully in 2013. NASA and Caterpillar remain in contact, exploring ideas for their next collaboration opportunity. In addition to these technology development programs, Caterpillar also works closely with NASA on educational outreach through the NASA Robotic Mining Competition.