Robots on a future moon base could be configured by snapping together universal robotic parts from a box, a bit like advanced LEGO Technic.
A future astronaut toy called WORMS, short for Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System, was presented by a team of MIT engineers at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Aerospace Conference.
In Greek, ‘oligomeric’ signifies ‘a few parts’.
That’s because the robotics system, includes multipurpose parts – limbs, base, motors, sensors, computers, batteries – able to be put together in different ways to create robots tailored for specialised moon tasks.
Robots will be crucially important when it comes to building a permanent base on the moon, as NASA plan to do in coming years. They can perform heavy lifting tasks like laying cables, deploying solar panels, erecting communications towers, and building habitats.
In order to avoid a future moon base being overrun by robots designed for highly-specific tasks, the engineers designed the mix and match kit.
The parts include worm-inspired limbs that connect to a base via a twist and lock mechanism. The robot can then move, with the help of specially designed software. The team hopes to add further snap-on sensors and tools like winches, balance sensors and drills.
“You could imagine a shed on the moon with shelves of worms,” says team leader George Lordos, a PhD candidate and graduate instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro).
“Astronauts could go into the shed, pick the worms they need, along with the right shoes, body, sensors and tools, and they could snap everything together, then disassemble it to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable, and cost-effective.”
Once one mission is completed, the robot can then be re-designed for a different task.
WORMS was conceived in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge — an annual competition for university students to design, develop, and demonstrate a game-changing idea.
“Our idea was that, with just a few parts, combined in different ways, you could mix and match and get all these different robots,” says AeroAstro undergraduate Brooke Bensche.
The robot system is designed to navigate the extreme terrain of the moon’s South Pole. a landscape marked by thick dust, rocky slopes and deep lava tubes. The environment also hosts “permanently shadowed” regions that could contain frozen water, which, if accessible, would be essential for sustaining astronauts.
As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot about the size of a go-cart. In the lab, they showed that once assembled, the robot’s independent limbs worked to walk over level ground. The team also showed that they could quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field, on a desert site in California.