The robotic parts can be assembled into clever spider bots for exploring lava tubes or heavy-duty elephant bots for moving solar panels. – Teach daily

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 to quickly create different “types” of robots to suit different missions on 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 of worms,” says team leader George Lordos, PhD candidate and graduate instructor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, referring to articulated autonomous robots that carry their own actuators and sensors. computer and battery. “The astronauts can go into the shed and choose the worms they need, along with the appropriate boots, body, sensors, and tools, and they can put everything together, and 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 at the IEEE Space Conference, where they also received an award for best paper at the conference.

MIT team members include Michael J. Brown, Kerr Lattichev, Aileen Liao, Sharmie Shah, Cesar Meza, Brooke Bench, Cynthia Kao, Yang Chen, Alex S. Miller, Aditya Mehrotra, Jacob Rodriguez, Anna Mokapati, Thomas Cantu, Katharina Sapozhnikov, Jessica Routledge, David Trumper, Sangbai Kim, Olivier De Weck, Jeffrey Hoffman, along with Alex Simen, Cormac O’Neill, Diego Rivero, Fiona Lin, Hanvey Cui, Isabella Golem, John Zhang, Julie Bierko, Pragwal Mahesh, Stephanie Howe, and Ziad El Awad and Chiara Resola of Carnegie Mellon University and Wendell Chun of the University of Denver.

animal instincts

WORMS was conceived in 2022 as an answer to NASA’s Innovative and Innovative Ideas (BIG) Challenge – an annual competition for college students to design, develop and demonstrate 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 up 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.”

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 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.”

This research was supported in part by NASA, MIT, the Massachusetts Space Grant, the National Science Foundation, and the Fanny and John Hertz Foundation.


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