Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System (WORMS) refers to an architecture where a robotic mobility capability to access extreme lunar terrain emerges from the swarm-like integration of a small (‘oligomeric’) set of nearly-identical, articulating ‘worms’. Mimicking arms, legs and backbones, WORMS can be configured into diverse walking robots with payload capacity from kilograms to tons. (3 minute Jan 2022 proposal video and 4 min Oct 2022 development video, explaining the concept)
Taking our inspiration from LEGO and also from diverse animals such as spiders, goats, oxen and penguins, we designed a modular mobility system that would support the field attachment of WORMS mobility elements to large infrastructural modules as well as field reconfiguration of the worm-like modular elements from one animal-like robot to another.
Alongside Worms, the second essential set of architectural elements is Accessories. Accessories are simple capability-enabling forms and include Pallets, Containers, Spools and Shoes. Accessories enable specialized value-adding general physical capabilities such as carrying a payload, deploying a cable or improving the ability to walk (or wade through) certain types of terrain - think snow shoes and crampons. Most accessories also enable electrical power sharing between worms connected to it.
Critical innovations include the Universal Interface Block which permits rigid coupling and electrical power transfer between architecture elements, and the Species Modules which confer special skills to individual worms, enabling the emergence of higher level functions through the synergistic, symbiotic collaboration of different worm species within a multi-worm robot configuration.
Each new robot configuration requires only new software plus a small number of worms of the appropriate species and accessories. The required worms and accessories for a robot configuration may be supplied new and assembled by a non-specialist in the field (think IKEA flat-pack robots), or may be repurposed by taking apart existing, no-longer-needed robot configurations. As long as the software exists in the code library and the necessary worms and accessories are at hand, any library robot configuration can be assembled by a non-specialist in a matter of hours or minutes and assigned to its task. The oligomeric (few parts) aspect of the architecture means that if a robot suffers damage, the damaged worm or accessory can be easily swapped out in the field with a replacement part so that the robot can continue its mission with minimal disruption. The architecture is designed to be resilient, versatile, easily maintainable, low-cost, evolvable, versatile, flexible and future-proof.
For the first demonstration of this technology in 2026, a quadruped WORMS-1 robot consisting of seven worm modules, a pallet and a spooled power cable, equipped with doppler LIDAR and a charging point, is proposed to be delivered by a Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) lander within a few hundred meters of the rim of a permanently shadowed region (PSR) near the lunar south pole. The other robots and rovers sharing this CLPS flight will also explore the same PSR. WORMS-1 forges ahead as a pathfinder through ‘fluffy’ and steeply inclined terrain to produce a 3D LIDAR point-cloud map of the immediate vicinity, facilitating path planning for the other rovers. Along the way, it deploys a power and data cable. At the end of its journey, WORMS-1 transforms itself into a recharging and data relay service station for the other robots and rovers exploring this PSR.
Beyond the immediate application to the demonstration use case, this architecture feeds forward into NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development and into plans by commercial and international actors for a permanent presence near the lunar south pole. NASA and its commercial and international partners are likely to have substantial, evolving, diverse and growing needs for infrastructure development and robotic mobility support on the surface of the Moon for years to come. Accordingly, the WORMS architecture aims to deliver both present and future value. Our strategy is that WORMS should be a mass-producible, reconfigurable, reusable and scalable system, so that it can be potentially of value to most future extreme terrain access and lunar infrastructure development scenarios that can be envisaged.