When astronauts begin to build a permanent base on the Moon, as NASA plans to do in the coming years, they’ll need help. Robots could potentially do the heavy lifting by laying cables, deploying solar panels, erecting communications towers, and building habitats. But if each robot is designed for a specific action or task, a Moon base could become overrun by a zoo of machines, each with its own unique parts and protocols.
To avoid a bottleneck of bots, a team of MIT engineers is designing a kit of universal robotic parts that an astronaut could easily mix and match to rapidly configure different robot “species” to fit various lunar missions. Once a mission is completed, a robot can be disassembled and its parts used to configure a new robot to meet a different task.
The team calls the system WORMS, for the Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System. The system’s parts include worm-inspired robotic limbs that an astronaut can easily snap onto a base, and that work together as a walking robot. Depending on the mission, parts can be configured to build, for instance, large “pack” bots capable of carrying heavy solar panels up a hill. The same parts could be reconfigured into six-legged spider bots that can be lowered into a lava tube to drill for frozen water.
“You could imagine a shed on the Moon with shelves of worms,” said team leader George Lordos, a PhD candidate and Graduate Instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics in reference to the independent, articulated robots that carry their own motors, sensors, computer, and battery. “Astronauts could go into the shed, pick the worms they need, along with the right shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they could snap everything together, then disassemble it to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable, and cost-effective.”
WORMS was conceived in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge — an annual competition for university students to design, develop, and demonstrate a game-changing idea. In 2022, NASA challenged students to develop robotic systems that can move across extreme terrain, without the use of wheels.
A team from MIT’s Space Resources Workshop took up the challenge, aiming specifically for a lunar robot design that could navigate the extreme terrain of the moon’s South Pole — a landscape that is marked by thick, fluffy dust; steep, rocky slopes; and deep lava tubes.
As they mulled over ways to navigate the Moon’s polar terrain, the students took inspiration from animals. “As we were thinking of these animal inspirations, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes similar movements as an arm, or a leg, or a backbone, or a tail,” said deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student Michael Brown. “And then the lightbulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.’”
The system’s main parts include the appendage, or worm, which can be attached to a body, or chassis, via a “universal interface block” that snaps the two parts together through a twist-and-lock mechanism. The parts can be disconnected with a small tool that releases the block’s spring-loaded pins.
Appendages can also snap into accessories such as a “shoe,” which the team engineered in the shape of a wok, and a LiDAR system that can map the surroundings to help a robot navigate.
The team developed software that can be tailored to coordinate multiple appendages. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot about the size of a gocart. In the lab, they showed that once assembled, the robot’s independent limbs worked to walk over level ground. The team also showed that they could quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field, on a desert site in California.
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