A group from MIT has come up with a solution to the problem of the requirement for numerous robots to do perilous duties after we reach the Moon: Walking robots that are both modular and wheelless, and that can be assembled in a variety of different ways.
The “worms,” robotic limbs designed to articulate like an earthworm, “species” modules that give the system different capabilities, like LIDAR mapping, and accessories that allow the unit to handle different environments, like specialised feet for different types of lunar regolith, make up the Walking Oligomeric (Greek for “a few parts”) Robotic Mobility System, or WORMS.
George Lordos, the project’s leader and a PhD candidate and lecturer at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has said that WORMS could reduce the amount of space robots need to store their equipment on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
While not in use, he imagined WORMS fitting neatly into a small space like a set of IKEA flat-packs.
“It would be easy for astronauts to go to the shed, select the worms they need, as well as the appropriate footwear, body, sensors, and tools, snap everything together, and then deconstruct it to create a new one. The layout has many positive qualities, including adaptability, longevity, and low price “Lordos from MIT declared.
In 2022, Lordos and his team came up with WORMS in response to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovating, and Game-Changing (BIG) idea challenge by taking inspiration from the natural world.
The MIT researchers team led by Lordos was a finalist at last year’s competition, which had the concept of creating wheel-free robots that could move around on different types of harsh terrain.
In the most recent presentation of their work, the WORMS team took home another best paper prize from IEEE’s annual Aerospace Conference.
How the Concept of Space WORMS Came, MIT Explained
At the conceptual stage referred by MIT researchers, Lordos’ group was inspired by four distinct species: spiders, mountain-climbing animals like goats, oxen, and elephants.
Each of the four classes may be quickly put together from a standard library of components, despite having a wide variety of possible configurations and uses.
For instance, the “spider” would be powered by a robot on the surface and would mostly consist of sensor arms for inspecting lava tubes and subterranean habitats.
An anchoring appendage on a WORMS climbing a mountain may be used for tethered descent, and the same appendage could be used by oxen carrying weights uphill to secure themselves at the peak.
So-called “elephants” may rely on each other to haul huge weights over difficult ground by linking arms.
The WORMS framework might also be used to construct “species” such as battery chargers that act as waystations for roving bots, rescue robots that can carry a human or a piece of damaged equipment, and robots with drill arms for sampling or drilling into the ground to anchor.
Evolution is a slow process
The WORMS system is only at NASA’s technology readiness level (TRL) 4, so it will take some time before an army of modular walking robots is doing the heavy labor on the Moon, as Lordos and his team admit in their study.
To achieve TRL 4, a project’s subsystem or component must have undergone successful laboratory validation.
TRL 6 indicates that a system, subsystem, or prototype has been shown in a relevant environment, such as on the Moon, which appears to be the team’s immediate goal.
In their article, the MIT researchers noted that despite the fact that their six-legged concept bot, WORMS-1, is “fitted with technologies and developed according to the system architecture that reflects this concept’s final goal,” it is still just a proof-of-concept prototype.
According to the MIT paper’s mention of a “planned 2026 tech demonstration mission,” Lordos’ team has only three years to reach TRL 6.
If that’s accomplished, the planned 2026 trip will have WORMS explore the area of a lunar crater that is always in darkness.
This will be accomplished by having one WORMS bot stationed at the top of the drop into the darkened zone, from which it will spool wires down to a recharging robot, which will provide energy for the roaming WORMS bots.
Yet, achieving that goal will need significant effort on your part. Due to the locking mechanism’s deterioration during testing, the team’s Universal Interface Block, which is supposed to be the adaptor for all the different WORMS modules, needs to be redesigned.
Since the WORMS motors have to be run externally on the test machine, their wiring procedures need to be reevaluated; this won’t work in the harsh, dusty environment of space.
With lunar exploration in the future, many ideas for robots have been offered, including the European Space Agency’s Daedalus and the University of Arizona’s “breadcrumb” mesh networking robots. Both of these are designed to prevent the need to lay cables all over the lunar surface.
The modularity and versatility of WORMS stands in stark contrast to those other solutions.
It’s not out of the question that NASA would look to WORMS as an example and instruct everyone to consider in terms of rapid reconfiguration to save weight during space launches.
To read our blog on “Soft robots, A new breakthrough of 2023,” click here.