Astronauts planning to build a permanent base on the moon will need robots to help them with various tasks. However, if each robot is specialized for a specific action, the moon base would be crowded with different machines. To overcome this problem, a team of engineers from MIT is working on a kit of universal robotic parts called WORMS (Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System). This system allows astronauts to easily mix and match parts to configure different robot “species” for different missions on the moon. Once a mission is completed, the robot can be disassembled and its parts used to configure a new robot for a different task.
The WORMS system was conceived as a response to NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge, which seeks to develop innovative robotic systems for extreme terrain. The MIT team drew inspiration from animals that could potentially complete specific missions on the moon. For example, a spider-inspired robot could explore lava tubes, while a line of robot elephants could carry heavy equipment down steep slopes. The team realized that a worm-like appendage could serve as an arm, leg, backbone, or tail for different robots.
Flexible and Easy to Use
The WORMS system consists of various parts, including a worm-like appendage and a universal interface block that allows easy attachment to a body. These parts can be connected and disconnected using a twist-and-lock mechanism. The system also includes accessories like a “shoe” and a LiDAR system for navigation. The team plans to add more sensors and tools in the future. The software developed by the team allows coordination between multiple appendages.
The team built a proof of concept robot with six legs, demonstrating its ability to walk over level ground. They also showed that the robot could be quickly assembled and disassembled in the field. The appendages are lightweight and can be easily handled by astronauts in the moon’s low gravity. The team has plans to create larger appendages for building “pack” bots capable of transporting heavy payloads.
The WORMS concept has garnered praise from experts at NASA. It embodies qualities like modularity, reconfigurability, adaptability, and flexibility that are crucial for future space exploration.
The research and development of the WORMS system were supported by NASA, MIT, the Massachusetts Space Grant, the National Science Foundation, and the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation.
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