NASA wants to send people to the moon in the coming years to build a permanent base there. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is planning a return to the moon with the Artemis program in the second half of this decade.

Robots can perform labour-intensive tasks such as laying wires, installing solar panels, erecting communication towers and building houses. Yet each robot is designed to perform a specific function or task. In that case, a lunar colony could be invaded by a zoo of robots, each with unique components and modes of operation.

A team of MIT engineers is designing a kit of universal robot parts that an astronaut can easily mix and match to quickly configure different robot types for different missions on the moon.

The system is called WORMS, for the Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System. It features worm-inspired robotic arms that an astronaut can easily clip onto a base. The parts can be configured to build large “suit” bots that can carry heavy solar panels up a hill or six-legged spider bots that can be lowered into a lava tube to drill into frozen water.

The design is flexible, durable and cost effective. The team built and demonstrated a six-legged WORMS robot. Last week, Lordos’ team presented their results at IEEE’s Aerospace Conference and received the conference’s Best Paper Award.

The main parts of the system are the appendage, or worm, which attaches 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 spring-loaded pins from the block.

In the first generation, each appendage is about 3 feet long and weighs about 20 pounds. In the moon’s gravity, each limb would weigh about 3 pounds. The team has planned the specifications for a larger generation with longer and slightly heavier attachments, which can be snapped together to build ‘pack’ bots capable of carrying heavy loads.

Team leader George Lordos, a Ph.D. candidate and graduate instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), said: “You could imagine a barn on the moon with shelves full of worms” about the independent, articulated robots that carry their motors, sensors, computer and battery. Astronauts can go into the shed, choose the worms they need, along with the right shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they can snap it all together and then take it apart to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable and cost-effective.”

WORMS was conceived in 2022 in response to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, an annual competition for college students to design, develop, and demonstrate a breakthrough idea.

The team wanted to design a lunar robot to navigate the extreme terrain of the moon’s south pole, characterized by thick, fuzzy dust, steep, rocky slopes and deep lava tubes.

They were inspired by animals such as spiders, elephants and goats. They realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes similar movements to an arm.

Lordos, who is of Greek descent, helped devise WORMS and chose the letter “O” for “oligomeric”, which means “a few parts” in Greek.

AeroAtro student Brooke Bensche said: “Our idea was that with just a few parts that were combined in different ways, you could mix and match all these different robots.”

Deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student Michael Brown said: “When we thought 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. And then the light went out: we were able to build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.”

AeroAtro student Jacob Rodriguez said: “In future iterations, we hope to add more clip-on sensors and tools, such as winches, balance sensors and drills.”

Kevin Kempton, an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center who served as a judge for the 2022 BIG Idea Challenge, said: “There are many buzzwords that describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, transversal, et cetera. The MIT WORMS concept includes all these qualities and more.”

The MIT WORMS concept is a modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, transversal system for future space exploration. The team developed software that can be customized to coordinate multiple appendages. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot the size of a go-kart.

The result shows that WORMS is a durable, easy-to-maintain, low-cost, evolvable, versatile, flexible, future-proof and modular architecture for the rapid assembly of extreme terrain and heavy-duty robots.

Magazine reference:

  1. George Lordos, Michael J. Brown, et al. WORMS: field-reconfigurable robots for extreme lunar terrain. IEEE’s Aerospace Conference.