Dr. Alex Ellery


Video of the Researcher




Full name

Dr. Alex Ellery


Designing self-replicating 3D printers to build advanced infrastructure in hostile environments

Type of researcher

Principal Investigator

Introduce yourself, your experience and your credentials

The age-old argument as to whether humans or robots should be used for space exploration comes up regularly. The reality is that there is no discord between humans and robots in space exploration. Each plays a complementary role in the division of labour in space, with machines acting as modern extensions of the tools that were first brought into service millions of years ago.

Human history has been the story of the ever-increasing deployment and sophistication of those tools. Robots are the ultimate tools, projecting our capabilities to hazardous and remote places like other planets.

Dr. Alex Ellery, Canada Research Chair in Space Robotics and Space Technology, aims to develop the capabilities of robots, so that they can explore, survey and eventually build on planets. Doing so will compensate for limited human capabilities to explore distant and hazardous places.

Ellery’s goal is to develop robots—or “robonauts”—that can navigate and traverse on their own in hostile terrain. The robots will also have to be able to use their own judgment to select interesting rocks for examination, be capable of manipulating rocks and soil to acquire samples, and make scientific assessments in order to determine their next course of action.

Ellery’s research will help ensure that robots can project human goals far beyond where humans can tread.

Describe your research

Our job is to essentially develop new robotic techniques to enhance space exploration. The work that we do in my lab are associated with traditional robotics. For examples, manipulate controls in space in order to provide new techniques to fix satellites when they go awry in space.

Secondly, our work is based on planetary rovers. Such as developing new rover techniques to make them more efficient robots to explore other planets. I also work on developing new AI techniques to make satellites smarter, so they can resist against cyber attacks.

However, the latest work that we are doing I think is the more interesting aspect. We have been looking at how to use 3D printing on the lunar environment and other planetary environment.

A few years ago, I’ve asked myself the question, what can space exploration or space technology do to help solve some of our global problem, such as climate change.

One of the things I came up was the idea of implementing solar powering satellites as a form of clean energy. Of course, that’s not a novel idea, it’s not new at all. But one of the big hindrances to it as been the sheer expense of launching these large satellites or constellation of satellites into earth’s orbit to capture solar energy and beam it down as microwave to the earth. And of course, the cost element as always been at launch.

One way to circumvent this is to forget launch entirely and try to build these satellites from materials available in space such as the moon. This is one of the thing that we’ve been working towards.

The next stage is to take that raw material and somehow manufacture useful products like spacecraft, robots, that sort of thing. If we can 3D print electromotors and we can

3D print computing electronics from lunar material, it basically means that we can print

robots. If we can print robots, we can print any type of kinematics mechanism or machines. If we can do that we can then print the components for solar powering satellites. And if we can print the components for solar powering satellites, we can build the component of a solar powered satellite on the moon and then send it to orbit around the earth, and provide a form of very low-cost energy to supply the earth.

Explain its significance

The end goal is to build a self-replicating machine. A self-replicating machine, as you can imagine is a 3D printer on wheels, a little more exotic than that perhaps. Essentially it can take raw material and build copies of itself.

The power of such a machine is immense because it means that we can build a general purpose factory, build a copy of that general purpose factory and keep on building, generating a productive capacity which grows exponentially.

Although we are initially applying this on the moon, it has applications here on earth also. For example, greening of the Sahara Desert. This is currently very expensive to do, but with a self-replicating machine it becomes very inexpensive and quite plausible.

It has implications also in developing countries. Because the unit itself is very small, it can be form of providing local productive capacity at a very low cost. And because its 3D printing, it effectively costs nothing.


Institution name

Carleton University

Type of institution