Students Hope Robot Snakes Slither Out of Lab

By Stew Magnuson

Students at Carnegie Mellon University laboratory are working on a family of robots that mimic the movement of snakes.

Students and teachers at the biorobotics laboratory at CMU Robotics Institute see several applications for robots that that do not require wheels or legs to move.

“The best way to model a robot was to model it on nature, so we chose a snake,” said undergraduate Sid Nangia.

Snakes can move through rocky areas, climb up poles, slither through crevices and even swim. The snake robot has demonstrated all these functions, students said.

The robot is actually a series of links, or a “modular chain of single degree of freedom units,” that move in conjunction with each other. It can be switched from the forward movement most snakes use to a sidewinder motion desert snakes employ to move over sand.

One possible application includes reconnaissance and surveillance. A camera is installed at the head of the robot and a claw can also be attached to drag objects.

They could also crawl into the rubble of a collapsed building in a search-and-rescue scenario or climb up a pole or tree to allow operators to get a bird’s eye view of a scene, he said.

A Pennsylvania power company recently asked students to send the robot into a broken turbine so they could see what was wrong. Disassembling the turbine would have cost the company time and money, said undergraduate Eric Rippey.

The current version of the robot is currently tethered, and cannot move autonomously, said Rippey. The lab will also have to develop better skins so water and dust doesn’t get into the electronics, he added.

Howie Choset, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and the leader of the project, said he has searched for Department of Homeland Security or Defense Department funding to help pay for the research, but has come up empty so far.

He also sees medical applications such as minimally invasive heart surgery for robots that move like snakes and has started a spin-off company, CardioRobotics, to commercialize the technology.

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Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Robotics, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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