These organic-inspired planetary landers could help NASA reach other worlds

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Autodesk, a software company, have engaged in a multiyear collaborative research project to investigate new approaches for building interplanetary landers.

The concept lander, perhaps the most complicated structure ever created using “generative design,” was unveiled today (Nov. 13) at Autodesk University, a conference being held this week in Las Vegas.

Design solutions

Generative design is a relatively new approach that uses machine intelligence and cloud computing to quickly generate a broad set of design solutions that fit within the specific constraints set by engineers. It enables design teams to explore a much wider design space while still being bound by manufacturing and performance requirements dictated by the team or environment, according to an Autodesk statement.

A commercial form of generative-design technology is available today in Fusion 360, Autodesk’s cloud-based product development platform.

Organic-looking shapes

Generative design is often associated with 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which is well-suited for the complex, organic-looking shapes that the software produces based on user specifications.

For the lander project, the JPL team is using experimental generative-design technology for multiple structural components, including the internal structure that holds the scientific instruments and the external structure that connects the lander legs to the main payload box. The team has been able reduce the mass of the external structure by 35 percent compared with the baseline design they started with.

New designs quickly

A key benefit of generative design is that it enabled the JPL team to iterate their designs rapidly.

“As a design matures and new performance or environmental data comes in, generative design can enable our customers to create new designs quickly,” Karl Willis, Autodesk’s technology lead on the project, said in the statement.

Most design teams typically take two to four months to turn around a revised design. But by working with generative design, Willis added, that process can take place in just two to four weeks.