A mix-and-match kit could enable astronauts to build a suite of lunar exploration robots

A mix-and-match kit could enable astronauts to build a suite of lunar exploration robots

A team of MIT engineers is designing a set of universal robotic parts that an astronaut can easily mix and match to build different “types” of robots for different missions on the Moon. Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

When astronauts begin to build a permanent base on the Moon, as NASA plans to do in the coming years, they will need help. Robots can do the heavy lifting by laying cables, deploying solar panels, erecting communication towers, and building habitats. But if each robot was designed to do a specific job or task, the moon base could be overrun by a zoo, each with its own unique parts and protocols.

To avoid robotic bottlenecking, a team of MIT engineers is designing a set of universal robotic parts that an astronaut can easily mix and match for a different configuration at speed. Robot “species” to suit different missions to the Moon. Once a task is complete, the robot can be disassembled and its parts used to form a new robot to fulfill a different task.

The team calls the system WORMS, for a walking oligomeric robotic mobility system. Parts of the system include worm-inspired robotic limbs that the astronaut can easily attach to the base, and together they work as a walking robot. Depending on the task, parts can be configured to build, for example, large “package” robots capable of carrying heavy solar panels up a hill. The same parts can be reconfigured into spidery, six-legged robots that can be lowered into a lava tube to dig for frigid water.

“You can imagine a shed on the moon with shelves worms,” says team leader George Lordos, PhD candidate and graduate instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro), referring to the autonomous, articulated robots that carry their own motors, sensors, computer and battery.” The astronauts can go into the shed and choose the worms they need, along with the appropriate shoes, body, sensors, and tools, and they can snap everything together, then take it apart to make a new one. The design is flexible, sustainable and cost-effective.”

Lordos’ team has built and demonstrated a robot out of six-legged worms. Last week, they presented their findings in the IEEE Space Conferencewhere they also received the conference’s Best Paper Award.

animal instincts

WORMS is conceived in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, Game-Changing Ideas (BIG) Challenge – an annual competition for University students To design, develop and showcase a game-changing idea. In 2022, NASA urged students to develop robotic systems that can move across rough terrain, without the use of wheels.

A team from MIT’s Space Resources Workshop took on the challenge, with the goal of designing a lunar robot that could navigate the harsh terrain of the moon’s south pole – a landscape marked by thick, fluffy dust. Steep rocky cliffs and deep lava tubes. The environment also hosts “permanently shaded” areas that could contain frozen water, which, if accessible, would be necessary for the survival of the astronauts.

As they pondered ways to navigate the moon’s polar terrain, the students took inspiration from animals. In their initial brainstorming process, they note that some animals could theoretically be suited to certain tasks: a spider can descend and explore a lava tube, a line of elephants can carry heavy equipment while supporting each other up a steep slope, and a goat tethered to the ground. To Thor, he could help lead the larger animal up a hillside as he transported an array of solar panels.

says deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student Michael Brown. “And then the light bulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots with worm-like appendages.”

Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Snap, snap

Lordus, of Greek descent, helped mint the worms, choosing the letter “O” to stand for “oligomeric,” which in Greek means “a few parts.”

“Our idea was that, with just a few parts, combined in different ways, you could mix and match and have all these different robots,” says Brooke Bench AeroAstro, an AeroAstro undergraduate student.

The main parts of the system include the accessory, or worm, that can be connected to a body, or structure, via a “universal interface block” that connects the two parts together through a twist-and-lock mechanism. The parts can be separated with a small tool that releases the block’s spring-loaded screws.

Attachments and bodies can also be integrated into accessories such as a “shoe,” which the team designed in the shape of a frying pan, and a LiDAR system that can map surroundings to help the robot navigate.

“In future iterations, we hope to add more additional sensors and tools, such as levers, balance sensors, and augers,” says Jacob Rodriguez, an undergraduate student at AeroAstro.

The team developed software that could be designed to coordinate multiple extensions. As a proof of concept, the team built a six-legged robot the size of a stroller. In the lab, they showed that once assembled, the autonomous limbs of the robot functioned to walk over flat ground. The team also showed that they can quickly assemble and disassemble the robot in the field, at a desert site in California.

In its first generation, each appendage of worms is about 1 meter long and weighs about 20 pounds. At the Moon’s gravity, which is about one-sixth that of Earth’s, each limb weighs about 3 pounds, which an astronaut can easily handle to build or disassemble a robot in the field. The team has mapped out specs for a larger generation with slightly longer and heavier accessories. These larger parts can be pieced together to build “package” robots capable of hauling heavy payloads.

“There are many buzzwords being used to describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, inclusive, and so on,” says Kevin Kimpton, an engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. 2022 BIG Idea Competition Judge. “The MIT Worm Concept incorporates all of these qualities and more.”

more information:
Worms: Endurable bots in the field for extreme lunar terrain. www.researchgate.net/publicati… xtreme_Lunar_Terrain

This story is republished with permission from MIT News (web.mit.edu/newsoffice/), a popular site covering news related to research, innovation, and teaching at MIT.

the quote: Mix-and-match kit could enable astronauts to build a set of lunar exploration robots (2023, March 14) Retrieved March 14, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-03-mix-and-match- kit -enable-astronauts-menagerie.html

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