Snakelike Robots May Fight Terror, Save Lives

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"The snakebot might be able to penetrate inside a bomb or a landmine and disarm it while preventing a detonation," said Abraham. "Humans would be kept distant from the danger." The same application could be useful for disposing of unexploded bombs and landmines.

In the case of terrorist attacks or military applications, the robots could be used to assess the danger of potential chemical or biological threats. The devices could be equipped with sensors that detect various substances, from heat to chemicals or radioactivity. "You could send a snake robot into the area, have it conduct a search, and grasp a sample for analysis," Abraham explained. "The entire time you avoid human contact with the dangerous materials."

Repairs Possible for Ship Engines, and Eventually the Human Body

A non-glamorous role for the robots is no less important for the Navy. "I'm supported by the Navy to do engine inspection and hopefully engine repair," Choset said. "It's a sort of arthroscopic surgery on the engine of a sea vessel and it saves a lot of time. You don't have to take an engine apart, you could just put the snake device in and have it fix the problem."

"In many instances it could be useful to penetrate inaccessible spaces," Abraham added. "On a big ship there are lots of small spaces where humans don't have access. You may need to cut holes in the hull to get to a system that needs repair. A device like the snake could provide that kind of repair, such as laser welding, on the spot."

In this role, mechanical staff could use snakebots equipped with digital cameras to identify and illustrate specific problem areas, allowing machine and man to work in tandem to conduct engine inspections or locate fluid leaks.

In the future, similar robots might work on the most complex machine of all—the human body. "In the long run, the epic application for this technology is surgery," Choset explained. "It could enable us to perform better surgical operations without having to open up a person—but unless there is some kind of critical breakthrough that sort of thing won't happen for a while."

Major challenges still remain for Choset and his team. Presently, they are working to perfect mechanism design, sensor integration, and other technical issues for the snakebot.

Interested in Snakes?

All this week the National Geographic Channel is airing stories about these well-rounded reptiles. Find out more about the Channel:
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