MIT’s new modular lunar robot has ‘worms’ for arms

MIT engineers have designed a walking lunar robot that is cleverly inspired by the animal kingdom. The “mix-and-match” system is made of worm-like robotic limbs that astronauts can configure into different “species” of robots that resemble spiders, elephants, goats and oxen. The team won the best paper award last week at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Aerospace Conference.

WORMS (Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System) is a team’s vision of a future where astronauts living on a lunar base delegate activities to robotic henchmen. But to avoid “a zoo of machines” with different robots for every imaginable task, the modular WORMS would allow astronauts to swap limbs, bases and appendages for the task at hand. For example, they could snap together a spider bot to crawl into dangerous lava tubes to drill for frozen water, or assemble an elephant-like packing robot to haul heavy equipment. They could even make a goat/ox combination to transport solar panels. And when they’re done with the task, they can take it apart and return it to storage until it needs to be used for something else.
The system includes a worm-like appendage that can snap together with a chassis through a twist-and-lock mechanism. Wok-shaped “shoes” can then snap onto the pendant’s other end. Finally, a small tool allows astronauts to release the block’s spring-loaded pins when it’s time to disassemble. The team has already developed a six-legged prototype, the size of a go-cart, using software that coordinates multiple worm limbs. They have successfully demonstrated assembly, disassembly and navigation in a recent field test.

“Astronauts could go into the shed, choose the WORMs they need, along with the right shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they could click everything together and then take it apart to make a new one,” said George Lordos , Ph.D. . candidate and graduate instructor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “The design is flexible, sustainable and cost-effective.”

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The team spawned the idea in 2022 as their response to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, an annual competition for college students to conjure up innovative ideas. In this year’s edition, NASA challenged students to develop robots to move over extreme terrain without wheels. The MIT team focused on a lunar robot that could navigate the moon’s south pole, which some suspect may include frozen water — crucial to astronauts’ long-term survival — but also complex terrain with thick dust, rocky slopes and lava tubes.

As the students brainstormed solutions, they drew inspiration from the animal kingdom. “When we were thinking about these animal inspirations, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes similar movements to an arm or a leg, or a spine or a tail,” says deputy team leader and AeroAstro student. Michael Brown. “And then the light bulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.”

Although each WORMS pendant weighs about 20 pounds on Earth, they would be only about three pounds in the lunar atmosphere, making it easy for astronauts to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble them like a high-tech Lego set. The team is already working on a second-generation model with longer and slightly heavier appendages, with an eye on bots to transport heavy equipment.

“There are many buzz words used to describe efficient systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, cross-functional, etc.,” said Kevin Kempton, an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a 2022 judge. BIG Idea Challenge . “The MIT WORMS concept incorporates all these qualities and more.”

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