Snake robot to aid search-and-rescue

Inspired by the amazing ability of sidewinder snakes to quickly climb sandy slopes, researchers have created a robot that can climb sand hills better, an advance that may aid search-and-rescue operations.

Researchers report that sidewinders improve their ability to traverse sandy slopes by simply increasing the amount of their body area in contact with the granular surfaces they’re climbing.

As part of the study, the principles used by the sidewinders to gracefully climb sand dunes were tested using a modular snake robot developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

Before the study, the snake robot could use one component of side-winding motion to move across level ground, but was unable to climb the inclined sand track the way the real snakes could readily ascend.

In a real-world application – an archaeological mission in Red Sea caves – sandy inclines were especially challenging to the robot.

However, when the robot was programmed with the unique wave motion discovered in the sidewinders, it was able to climb slopes that had previously been unattainable.

“Our initial idea was to use the robot as a physical model to learn what the snakes experienced,” said Daniel Goldman, an associate professor in Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Physics.

“By studying the animal and the physical model simultaneously, we learned important general principles that allowed us to not only understand the animal, but also to improve the robot,” said Goldman.

The detailed study showed that both horizontal and vertical motion had to be understood and then replicated on the snake-like robot for it to be useful on sloping sand.

The modular snake robot used in the study was specifically designed to pass horizontal and vertical waves through its body to move in three-dimensional spaces.

The robot is two inches in diameter and 37 inches long; its body consists of 16 joints, each joint arranged perpendicular to the previous one.

That allows it to assume a number of configurations and to move using a variety of gaits – some similar to those of a biological snake, researchers said.

The robots appear well suited for urban search-and-rescue operations in which robots need to make their way through the rubble of collapsed structures, as well as archaeological explorations.

Able to readily move through pipes, the robots also have been tested to evaluate their potential for inspecting nuclear power plants from the inside out.

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