Down to Earth: The cordless drill

18 July 2017

Interview with

Dr Stuart Higgins, Imperial College London

In this episiode of Down to Earth, the technology to help astronauts dig holes in the moon makes its way down to earth in the form of the cordless drill. Physicist Stuart Higgins from Imperial College is getting into his DIY...

Stuart - What happens when the science and technology of space comes down to Earth? Hi, I'm Dr Stuart Higgins and welcome to this episode of Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists – the mini-series that explores how technology developed for space is also used back down on Earth.

This episode, how developing an astronaut’s drill to dig holes in the moon helped lead to the development of cordless vacuums.

In 1968, NASA launched the first of the Apollo programme missions to the moon. As well as the ultimate goal of being the first to put humans on the moon, the Apollo programme was also used to conduct scientific research. This included drilling holes into the moon to remove samples for testing back on Earth. The 6 Apollo flights that landed on the moon returned 382 kilograms of lunar material including core samples. These samples reveal much about the composition and origin of the moon, including that the moon may once have had its own magnetic field. In order to get samples deeper from the moon’s surface, the Apollo astronauts needed a drill. Just like using a vacuum cleaner or a hedge cutter down on Earth, the astronauts didn’t want to have to run long power extension leads across the moon back to their lunar landing module. So instead, NASA looked into developing a cordless battery-powered lunar drill. They ended up working together with Black and Decker – a power tools manufacturer – who in the early 1960s released the first cordless electric drill and a cordless hedge trimmer. Traveling as far as the moon takes a lot of energy, so NASA was keen to minimise the mass it needed to transport. Batteries were heavy and bulky. To minimise the number required, an efficient electric motor was needed in order to cut down the power demands. Engineers from Black and Decker developed a computer programme to optimise the electric motor’s design, reducing the energy needed. The end result was a drill that could operate from about 40 minutes from its 3.3 kilogram power supply. And granted that’s still pretty heavy but not bad considering the amount of energy needed to drill into rock and sand.

This drill subsequently went to the moon on the Apollo missions and was used to bring back core samples to Earth. Black and Decker went on to use the skills and expertise they developed to create products such as the cordless vacuum cleaner which has been sucking up crumbs ever since.

Incidentally, NASA even included a troubleshooting guide and a manual for their lunar drill. Entry number one for the drill not working: Try charging or replacing the batteries. Some things never change…

That was Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists and join me again soon to learn about more space technology that’s changing lives back on Earth.


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