Snakelike Robots May Fight Terror, Save Lives

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated March 11, 2003

Snakelike robots may soon fight terrorism, save lives, and make repairs on everything from battleship engines to the human body. Sound like science fiction? New research is bringing these incredible possibilities closer to reality. A leading researcher behind this endeavor is Howie Choset, a mechanical engineer and roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His goal is to perfect what he calls the "snakebot."

Choset's team is backed by a very interested party—the United States Navy's Office of Naval Research. The research branch has funded Choset's research since 1997, seeing promise in the application of snakebot technology to tasks as diverse as routine engine maintenance to diffusing bombs planted by terrorists.

Choset's work is on the cutting edge of robotics, but his idea is not an original one. Rather, Choset says he was first exposed to the notion serpentine robots while a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, through the work of his advisor, Joel Burdick, and Greg Chirikjian. "[They] really brought snake robots to the forefront to the United States. I fell in love with the idea."

Snakelike robots already exist in rudimentary forms. But Choset's creations push the envelope. Small and very strong by design, Choset's snakebots measure just five centimeters (two inches) in diameter. The use of beveled gears around their circumference, allows the serpentine robots many more degrees of movement than conventional robots—including the ability to move efficiently in three-dimensional space.

Choset's machines use complex mathematical algorithms that enable them to autonomously sense and respond to obstacles and variations they encounter while navigating across landscapes.

Such innovations mean that the snakebot may soon become a highly effective tool for difficult applications like the complicated and dangerous work of urban search and rescue.

Snakebots Could Aid Disaster Victims

"With their enhanced flexibility and 'reach' ability in convoluted environments, serpentine robots make sense for search and rescue," Choset said. "If you can locate a survivor, you've often saved his or her life. Just letting them know that help is on the way and pinpointing their location for rescuers can make the difference."

"Consider the collapsed World Trade Center [disaster of September 11, 2001]. The magnitude of the devastation exceeded the available resources of urban search and rescue specialists, dogs, and sensors," said Phillip Abraham, a physicist and science officer at the Office of Naval Research. "In other situations, the pancake collapse of large structures prevents rescue workers from entering buildings due to fear of further collapse. But the biggest problem is simply that both people and dogs are usually too big to enter voids."

Enter the snakebot, perfectly at home in the tangled, dangerous, and cramped environment that's dangerous or inaccessible to other search and rescue personnel.

"They would make a tremendous difference," said Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robotic Assisted Search and Rescue at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "There are different types of rubble, so there is no perfect robot for search and rescue. Some existing robots, like those in use in Afghanistan, function well in open space, or can climb stairs. But these snakebots could get into very confined spaces without further disturbing unstable rubble. It would be very effective and it's very exciting."

Search and rescue operations are just potential application of the snakebot project. The serpentine robots could also be used to disarm explosives while minimizing the danger to humans.

Continued on Next Page >>


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