When astronauts start building a permanent base on the moon, as NASA plans to do in the coming years, they’ll need help. Robots can potentially perform heavy lifting by laying cables, installing solar panels, building communications towers and building settlements. But if each robot is designed for a specific operation or task, the moon base could house a zoo of machines, each with its own unique parts and protocols.
To avoid bot congestion, a team of MIT engineers is designing a set of universal robotic parts that an astronaut can easily mix and match to quickly configure different robot “types” for different missions on the moon. After a mission is completed, the robot can be disassembled and its parts used to configure a new robot to perform another task.
The team calls the system WORMS, for Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System. The system’s parts include worm-inspired robotic limbs that the astronaut can easily clip onto the base and that work together as a walking robot. Depending on the mission, the parts can be configured to create, for example, large “pack” bots that can carry heavy solar panels up a hill. The same parts can be reconfigured into six-legged spider bots that can descend into a lava tube to drill for frozen water.
“You can imagine a barn with racks of worms on the moon,” said team leader George Lordos, a PhD candidate and instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), referring to independent, articulated robots that carry their own. motors, sensors, computer and battery. “Astronauts could go into the cabin, select the worms they needed, along with the appropriate boots, body, sensors and instruments, and they could put everything together and then take it apart to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable and cost-effective.”
The Lordos team built and demonstrated the six-legged WORMS robot. Last week, they presented their results at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, where they also received the conference’s best paper award.
MIT team members include Michael J. Brown, Kir Latishev, Aileen Liao, Sharmi Shah, Cesar Meza, Brooke Benshe, Cynthia Cao, Yang Chen, Alex S. Miller, Aditya Mehrotra, Jacob Rodriguez, Anna Moccapati, Thomas Cantu, Katerina Sapozhnikov, Jessica Rutledge, David Trumper, Sangba Kim, Olivier de Weck, Jeffrey Hoffman, Alex Simenni, Cormac O’Neill, Diego Rivero, Fiona Lin, Hanfei Kui, With Isabella Golem, John Zhang, Jolie Bercow, Prajwal Mahesh, Stephanie Howe. and Zeyad Al Awwad, along with Chiara Rissola of Carnegie Mellon University and Wendell Chun of the University of Denver.
WORMS was created in 2022 as a response 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 navigate extreme terrain without the use of wheels.
A team at MIT’s Space Resources Workshop took on the challenge of designing a custom lunar robot capable of navigating the extreme terrain of the moon’s south pole; steep, rocky slopes; and deep lava tubes. The environment also hosts “permanently shadowed” regions that may contain frozen water, which, if available, would be essential for sustaining astronauts.
As they brainstormed ways to navigate the moon’s polar terrain, the students were inspired by animals. In their initial brainstorming, they noted that certain animals could be conceptually adapted to certain missions; a spider can drop down and explore a lava tube, a line of elephants can carry heavy equipment while supporting each other up a steep slope, and a goat can be tethered. an ox, can help a larger animal up the side of a hill as it carries an array of solar panels.
“When we were thinking about the inspiration for these animals, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes movements like an arm, or a leg, or a spine, or a tail,” says deputy team leader and graduate student at AeroAstro. Michael Brown. “And then the light bulb went off. we could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.”
Connect sharply, cut
Lordos, who is of Greek descent, helped WORMS to design the coin and chose the letter “O” for “oligomeric,” which is Greek for “a few parts.”
“Our idea was that with just a few parts put together in different ways, you could mix and match and get all these different robots,” said AeroAstro undergraduate Brooke Bensche.
The main parts of the system include the hitch or worm, which can be attached to the body or chassis via a “universal interface block” that connects the two parts together using a twist-and-lock mechanism. The parts can be removed with a small tool that releases the spring-loaded pins in the block.
Apps and bodies can also be snapped into accessories such as a “shoe,” which the team developed in the shape of a walkie-talkie, and a LiDAR system that can map the surroundings to help the robot navigate.
“In the future, we hope to add more compression sensors and tools such as winches, balance sensors and drills,” said Jacob Rodriguez, an AeroAstro undergraduate.
The team has developed software that can be adapted to coordinate multiple applications. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot roughly the size of a cart. In the lab, they demonstrated that once assembled, the robot’s independent limbs worked to traverse flat ground. The team also demonstrated that they could quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field in the California desert.
In its first generation, each WORMS attachment is about 1 meter long and weighs about 20 pounds. In the moon’s gravity, which is about one-sixth that of Earth, each limb weighs about 3 pounds, which an astronaut can easily overcome to build or dismantle a robot in the field. The team envisioned the specs of the older generation with longer and slightly heavier appendages. These larger parts can be snapped together to create “packable” bots that can carry heavy loads.
“There are many words used to describe efficient systems for future space exploration; judge for the 2022 BIG Idea Challenge. “The MIT WORMS concept includes all these features and more.”
This research was supported in part by NASA, MIT, the Massachusetts Space Grant, the National Science Foundation, and the Fanny and John Hertz Foundation.