These configurable robots can be mixed and matched for tasks in space

The devices can be put together in a variety of configurations useful for different tasks.
Loukia Papadopoulos
One of MIT's WORMs robot.jpg
One of MIT's WORMs robots.

MIT 

When we finally get to space, we will need a variety of robots to help us survive. MIT took this idea to the next level by introducing mix-and-match robots that can be assembled into countless configurations useful for different tasks.

The new systems are called WORMS, for the Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System. According to a press release by MIT published on Tuesday, they could revolutionize how we approach space robotics.

“You could imagine a shed on the moon with shelves of worms,” said team leader George Lordos, a Ph.D. 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.”

The independent articulated robots each carry their motors, sensors, computer, and battery. They can be assembled together to undertake more complex tasks or individually for smaller goals.

Inspired by the flexible worm

One of Earth's most flexible animals inspired their design: the worm.

“As we were thinking of these animal inspirations, we realized that one of the simplest animals, the worm, makes similar movements as an arm, or a leg, or a backbone, or a tail,” said deputy team leader and AeroAstro graduate student Michael Brown. 

“And then the lightbulb went off: We could build all these animal-inspired robots using worm-like appendages.’”

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The next step was making these robots configurable.

“Our idea was that, with just a few parts, combined in different ways, you could mix and match and get all these different robots,” added AeroAstro undergraduate Brooke Bensche.

The novel machines were conceived in 2022 as a submission to NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, an annual competition that 2022 assigned university students to design robotic systems that can move across extreme terrain without the use of wheels. 

WORMs didn’t fail to impress the competition’s judges.

“There are many buzz words that are used to describe effective systems for future space exploration: modular, reconfigurable, adaptable, flexible, cross-cutting, et cetera,” said in the statement Kevin Kempton, an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, who served as a judge for the 2022 event. 

“The MIT WORMS concept incorporates all these qualities and more.”

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