Carnegie Mellon’s robotic snake slithers through radioactive pipes, broken buildings

Carnegie Mellon’s snakebot can move like a snake, or not depending on obstacles

While it doesn't have that slick feeling to its skin, a new 37-inch long snake robot with a wireless camera and LED light attached to its head can find its way into pipes and through rubble where humans cannot go.

The Carnegie Mellon snakebot is two inches in diameter and tethered to a control and power cable. Its body consists of 16 modules, each with two half-joints that connect with corresponding half-joints on adjoining modules. Carnegie researchers said the snake body has 16 degrees of freedom, letting it twist into a number of configurations and to move using a variety of gaits - some similar to a snake's.

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The snake robot has been tested in urban search-and-rescue environments in which it crawls through the rubble of collapsed buildings, in archeological excavations and in conventional fossil fuel plants. Further development of the robot could enhance its inspection capabilities, including a next-generation robot that will be waterproof. The researchers also envision designing a "tether runner" device that could move along the robot's tether and position itself around bends in a pipe, ensuring that the robot can be retrieved.

One of the first tests of the snakebot was in the Austrian Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant where it crawled through a variety of steam pipes and connecting lines. Though the robot's body twists, turns and rotates as it moves through or over pipes, the view from the video feed was corrected so that it was always aligned with gravity. This new "right-side-up" video feature made controlling the robot more intuitive and helped engineers better understand what the robot was seeing, said Robotics Professor Howie Choset in a statement.

The  video imagery possible with the snake robot is superior to what is available through a borescope, which has limited ability to change its camera angle. Further development could enable the snake robot to perform simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), a robotic technique that would produce a map of a nuclear plant's pipe network as it exists, said Choset.

"Our robot can go places people can't, particularly in areas of power plants that are radioactively contaminated," Choset said. "It can go up and around multiple bends, something you can't do with a conventional borescope, a flexible tube that can only be pushed through a pipe like a wet noodle."

The boiling-water Zwentendorf reactor was built in the 1970s, but was never operated. Its lack of radioactive contamination makes it suitable for research, testing and educational purposes.

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