If astronauts start building a permanent base on the moon in the future, they will need help. Potentially, robots could do the heavy work of laying cables, installing solar panels, erecting communication towers and building homes. But if each robot is designed to solve a specific task, the lunar base will be crowded with a fleet of machines, each of which will have its own unique parts and protocols.
A group of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a set of universal robotic parts that an astronaut can easily mix and match to quickly create various robots suitable for various missions on the Moon. After completing one mission, the robot can be disassembled and its parts used to create a new robot to perform another task.
The team named the system WORMS (abbr. Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System). Parts of the system include worm-inspired robotic limbs that an astronaut can easily attach to a base, and that work together like a walking robot. Depending on the mission, parts can be configured to create, for example, large "pack" robots capable of carrying heavy solar panels. The same parts can be reconfigured into six-legged spider robots that can be used to explore the moon.
"You can imagine a barn on the moon with shelves for WORMS," says group leader George Lordos, PhD and lecturer in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. - Astronauts could go to the shed, select the parts they need along with the appropriate sensors and tools, fasten everything together, and then disassemble to make a new one. This design is flexible, stable and cost-effective."
The Lordos team built and demonstrated a six-legged WORMS robot. Last week, they presented their results at the IEEE Aerospace Conference, where they received an award for the best report.
WORMS was conceived in 2022 as part of the NASA BIG Idea Challenge student competition. The students were tasked with developing robotic systems capable of moving through extreme terrain without using wheels.
The MIT press release reports that the students drew inspiration from animals and during the initial brainstorming, the team noted that some animals may be conceptually suitable for specific missions. For example, "a spider can go down and explore a lunar lava tube, elephants can carry heavy equipment supporting each other on a steep slope, and a goat tied to a bull can help guide a larger animal up a hill while transporting an array of solar panels."
The team has developed software that can be adapted to coordinate multiple parts of the WORMS system. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot the size of a cart. In the laboratory, they showed that after assembly, the robot's independent limbs work to walk on a flat surface. The team also showed that it can quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field, in the California desert.
In the first generation, each limb of the WORMS robot is about 1 meter long and weighs about 9 kg. In the conditions of lunar gravity, each limb will weigh about 1.4 kg, which will allow the astronaut to easily cope with the assembly or disassembly of the robot. The team also developed specifications for a larger generation with longer and slightly heavier limbs.
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