MIT engineers have designed a walking lunar robot cleverly inspired by the animal kingdom. The “mix-and-match” system consists of worm-like robotic limbs that astronauts can configure into different “types” of robots that look like spiders, elephants, goats, and bulls. the team had won Best paper award last week at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Space Conference.
WORMS (Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System) is one team’s vision of a future where astronauts living on a lunar base would delegate activities to robotic minions. However, to avoid a “zoo” with different robots for every imaginable mission, modular worms would allow astronauts to swap limbs, bases, and appendages for the task at hand. For example, they can capture a spider robot to crawl inside dangerous lava tubes to dig for frozen water or assemble an elephant-like robot to transport heavy equipment. They can even make a goat/ox combination to move solar panels. And when they’re done with the job, they can disassemble it and put it back in storage until it’s needed for something else.
The system includes a worm-like attachment, which can be attached to a structure through a twist-and-lock mechanism. The pan-shaped “shoes” can then be snapped onto the other end of the accessory. Finally, a small tool allows the astronauts to release the block’s spring-loaded pins when it’s time to disassemble. The team has already developed a six-legged prototype, about the size of a stroller, using software that coordinates multiple worm limbs. They have successfully demonstrated assembly, disassembly and navigation in a recent field test.
“The astronauts can go into the shed and pick out the worms they need, along with the right boots, body, sensors, and tools, and they can put everything together, and then take it apart to make a new one,” said George Lordos, Ph.D. . Candidate and Graduate Instructor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The design is flexible, sustainable and cost-effective.”
The team launched the idea in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Innovative and Innovative Ideas (BIG) Challenge, an annual competition for college students to conjure innovative ideas. In that year’s edition, NASA urged students to develop robots to move across rough terrain without wheels. The MIT team focused on a lunar robot that could navigate the moon’s south pole, which some suspect might contain frozen water—necessary for the astronauts’ long-term survival—but also in complex terrain with thick dust, rocky cliffs, and lava tubes.
As the students brainstormed solutions, they drew inspiration from the animal kingdom. says AeroAstro deputy team leader and graduate student Michael Brown. “And then the light bulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots with worm-like appendages.”
Although each accessory of the worm worm weighs about 20 pounds on Earth, it would only be about three pounds in the lunar atmosphere, making it easy for astronauts to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble like a high-tech Lego set. The team is already working on a second-generation model with slightly longer and heavier attachments, with a focus on robots to pull heavy equipment.
“There are many buzzwords that are used to describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, inclusive, and so on,” said Kevin Kimpton, engineer at NASA Langley Research Center and Governing 2022. Big idea challenge. “The MIT Worm Concept incorporates all of these qualities and more.”
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