Robots can do many of the tasks that are difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish with human hands but there is one major problem with conventional robots that typically traverse on flat surfaces, they can't navigate in certain directions and in sandy and wet surfaces.
Scientists have therefore come up with snake-like robots. Robotics experts from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have been developing snake robots over the past 20 years, which proved to have certain advantages over legged robots. Snake robots, for instance, can wriggle their way into very tight spaces.
Snake robots, however, have not yet mastered some movements, which could be crucial in certain missions. Three years ago, Elizabeth, one of the robots developed by roboticist Howie Choset and his colleagues from the Carnegie Mellon University, failed to climb up a sandy slope and slipped during an archaeological mission in Egypt's Red Sea caves.
One movement that modular robotic snakes apparently need to master is sidewinding, which allows real snakes to climb steep and even slippery surfaces, so Choset and his colleagues decided to figure out the snakes' trick by observing real snakes go about with this movement.
For the research described in the journal Science on Oct. 10, Choset's team observed six sidewinder rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerastes) at Zoo Atlanta while the animals move in their large enclosure that contains desert sand and which could be elevated to form different angles. By recording and analyzing the snakes' motion, the researchers learned how the snakes moved their body.
"Our laboratory experiments reveal that as granular incline angle increases, sidewinder rattlesnakes increase the length of their body in contact with the sand," Choset and colleagues wrote. "Implementing this strategy in a physical robot model of the snake enables the device to ascend sandy slopes close to the angle of maximum slope stability."
The researchers then applied their observations to program and improve the capabilities of modsnakes. Now the modular snake robots can sidewind up a 20-degree incline. As for their potential uses, Choset said that the snake robots could be helpful in search and rescue missions.
"Nearest and dearest to my heart is urban search and rescue - I want to enable rescue workers to identify survivors in collapsed structures as quickly and safely as possible," Choset said. "We're also interested in getting these robots into pipes, such as in nuclear power plants and in sewers."