MIT engineers have designed a walking moon robot cleverly inspired by the animal kingdom. The “mix and match” system is made of worm-like robotic limbs that astronauts could configure into various “species” of robots resembling 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 in which astronauts living on a lunar base delegate activities to robotic minions. However, to avoid “a zoo of machines” with multiple robots for every imaginable task, modular WORMS would allow astronauts to interchange limbs, bases, and appendages for the task at hand. For example, they could assemble a spider robot to crawl into dangerous lava tubes to pierce frozen water, or assemble an elephant-shaped cargo robot to transport heavy equipment. They could even make a goat/ox combination to carry solar panels. And when they’re done with the task, they can disassemble it and return it to storage until it’s needed for something else.
The system includes a worm-shaped appendage, which can be attached to a chassis through a twist-and-lock mechanism. Wok-shaped “shoes” can fit into the other end of the appendage. Finally, a small tool allows astronauts to release the block’s spring-loaded pins when it’s time to disassemble it. The team has already developed a six-legged, go-kart-sized prototype using software that coordinates multiple worm limbs. They have successfully demonstrated mounting, dismounting, and navigation in a recent field test.
“Astronauts could go into the shed, choose the WORMS they need, along with the correct shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they could put everything together and then take it apart to make a new one,” said George Lordos, Ph.D. . candidate and graduate instructor in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “Design is flexible, sustainable and profitable.”
The team spawned the idea in 2022 as their response to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Breakthrough Ideas (BIG) Challenge, an annual competition for college students to conjure up groundbreaking ideas. In that year’s edition, NASA challenged students to develop robots to navigate extreme terrain without wheels. The MIT team focused on a lunar robot that could navigate the moon’s South Pole, which some suspect could include frozen water, essential for astronauts’ long-term survival, but also complex terrain with thick dust, rocky slopes and lava tubes.
As students brainstormed solutions, they were inspired by the animal kingdom. “While thinking about these animal inspirations, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes movements similar to those of an arm, a leg, a spine or a tail,” says the deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student. Michael Brown. “And then the light bulb went on: We could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.”
Although each WORMS appendage weighs about 20 pounds on Earth, they would only weigh about three pounds in the moon’s atmosphere, making it easy for astronauts to assemble, take apart, 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 toward heavy equipment transport robots.
“There are a lot of buzzwords used to describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, traversal, etc.,” said Kevin Kempton, an engineer at NASA Langley Research Center and a 2022 judge. Great idea challenge. “The MIT WORMS concept embodies all of these qualities and more.”