Creepy New Robot Snake Could Actually Save Lives

Design inspired by nature...

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© 2017 Carnegie Mellon University

The field of robots is developing at at incredibly rapid pace. In recent years, robots have been built which can easily navigate a wide variety of difficult terrain in order to reach their goal. To do this, the most successful approach for engineers and scientists is not to come up with completely original designs, but rather to borrow from nature.

However, there is one kind of terrain which robots still largely struggle to traverse: sand. In order to change this though, a team from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and Oregon State University, are looking to one of nature’s best adapted desert dwellers, the snake, in order to discover how it can move through a sandy environment with such ease. Particularly they are studying the Desert Sidewinder snake, which has the unique ability to move sideways through sand.

"The snake is one of the most versatile of all land animals, and we want to capture what they can do," said Ross Hatton, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University "The desert sidewinder is really extraordinary, with perhaps the fastest and most efficient natural motion we've ever observed for a snake."

Once the motion of the snake was mapped and analysed, it was then programmed into a snake-like robot. With the new movement understood, the robot was able to successfully navigate its way through a tricky environment of shifting sands, albeit at a slower pace than the Desert Sidewinder.

Its developers believe that a more functional redesign of the robot would have a multitude of uses. Primarily, it could be used in a search and rescue function, able to travel through small cavities in order to find trapped people. Additionally, the robot could be useful for archaeologists, who could use it to survey dust-filled tombs without having to disturb them with a human presence. Finally, the robot could ultimately aid in space exploration, providing an easy vehicle for the exploration of the sandy surfaces of the Moon and Mars.