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MIT researchers propose modular, multi-mission Moon robots

Fancy playing with some space Lego?

We're going to need a lot of robots to handle dangerous tasks once we get to the Moon, and a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is proposing a solution: Modular, wheel-free walking robots made from a bunch of reconfigurable parts. 

The Walking Oligomeric (Greek for "a few parts") Robotic Mobility System, or WORMS, consists of three categories of parts: The "worms" themselves, robotic limbs designed to articulate like an earthworm; "species" modules that give the system different capabilities, like LIDAR mapping; and accessories that enable the unit to handle different environments, such as specialized feet for different types of lunar regolith. 

WORMS could minimize robot storage space while on the Moon, Mars or beyond, said the project's leader, George Lordos, a PhD candidate and instructor at MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. In his mind, WORMS could all live in a nice, compact space like flat-packed IKEA furniture while awaiting use. 

"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," Lordos said

Taking a cue from nature

Lordos and his team first conceived of WORMS in 2022 as part of NASA's Breakthrough, Innovating and Game-Changing (BIG) idea challenge. The theme of last year's event was to design wheel-free robots that would be mobile in various extreme terrain environments, and Lordos' team ended up a finalist, as well as winning an award for best technical paper. 

The WORMS team most recently presented its research on WORMS at IEEE's annual Aerospace Conference, and again won an award for best paper.

As part of the concept stage, Lordos' team took cues from four different animals: spiders; mountain-climbing animals like goats; oxen; and elephants. All four categories have different configurations and specialized purposes that could be rapidly assembled from a basic set of parts.

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The "spider", for example, would largely consist of sensor arms for examining lava tubes and sub-surface environments, and would be tethered to a robot on the surface for power. Mountain-climbing WORMS could be outfitted with a limb that could anchor itself to the rock to allow for tethered descent, and likewise could serve as a top-of-the-hill anchor for oxen hauling heavy loads up inclines. "Elephants" are designed to tether to each other for support while also carrying heavy loads over rough terrain.

Other possible "species" built using WORMS could be battery chargers that serve as a waystation for roving bots, rescue robots able to carry a human or a piece of damaged equipment and robots equipped with drill arms for sampling or drilling into the ground to anchor.

Evolution isn't quick

Getting to the point where an army of modular walking robots is doing the hard work on the Moon is going to take some time, which Lordos and his team admit in their paper: The WORMS system is only at NASA's technological readiness level (TRL) 4.

TRL 4 means that a component or subsystem of a project has been validated in a laboratory environment. According to the paper, the team's immediate goal seems to be to reach TRL 6, which means a system, subsystem or prototype has been demonstrated in a relevant environment – in this case on the Moon.

"Though equipped with technologies and built according to the system architecture that reflects this concept's end goal, WORMS-1 [the six-legged concept bot the team has built] is ultimately a proof-of-concept prototype," the MIT team said in the paper. 

The paper mentions a "proposed 2026 tech demonstration mission," which means Lordos' team only has three years to get to TRL 6. If they manage that feat, the proposed 2026 mission would see WORMS scout the permanently shadowed region of a lunar crater. To do so, one WORMS bot will sit at the top of the descent into the shadowed region to spool cables down to a recharging robot, which will supply power for roving WORMS. 


The proposed PSR WORMS demonstration in 2026

It's going to take a lot of work to get there, though: The Universal Interface Block the team designed to serve as the adaptor for all the various WORMS modules needs a redesign, as the locking mechanism used had already begun to deteriorate during testing. The WORMS' motor wiring methods need to be reconsidered too, as they had to be run externally on the test machine – something that won't fly in the cold dustiness of space.

We asked the MIT team more about its plans for WORMS' future and will update this story if we hear back.

Lunar exploration being as close on the horizon as it is, plenty of different robot concepts have been proposed, some of which are designed to avoid having to run cables all over the lunar surface, like the European Space Agency's Daedalus or the University of Arizona's "breadcrumb" mesh networking robots. 

The big difference between those designs and WORMS, however, is modularity and adaptability. With every pound precious during a space launch, it wouldn't be a surprise if NASA looked to WORMS and told everyone else to think along the same rapidly reconfigurable lines. ®

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