Robotic snakes wriggle through pipes to inspect nuclear power plants

With names like Frostbite, Spooky and Pepperoni, Carnegie Mellon University’s robotic snakes sound like they would fit in perfectly in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic. Their ability to swim and slither up pipes would also make them right at home in the turtles’ sewer lair.
Robotic snake
Carnegie Mellon Biorobotics Lab researchers don’t envision their robots joining the Ninja Turtles anytime soon, but they do have similar goals to make the world a little better. This week, they released a video showcasing the snakes’ capabilities inside a nuclear power plant in Austria. The snakes easily climb through steam pipes and into large enclosed equipment and are equipped with a light and video camera to capture their surroundings.
“Our robot can go places people can’t, particularly in areas of power plants that are radioactively contaminated,” Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Howie Choset said in the video description. “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.”
They also build snakes specially for search and rescue missions. Their ability to slip through tiny holes and move over uneven terrain makes them ideal for environments like a collapsed building or mine. A two-way speaker allows rescuers to communicate with victims through the snake.
The snakes are lowered into a building on a rope or carried in by a dog. Or they can be thrown at an object, such as a pole. As of this year, they are built to grab onto objects they encounter in the air.
The snakes can also be used to paint in awkward enclosed spaces and even enter the human body to perform surgery. Their ability to climb and swim allows them to provide surveillance from unusual vantage points like a flagpole or air duct.
Robotic snake in a tree
Most of the snakes’ movement mechanisms are inspired by nature. Their resulting wriggling, rolling motions are unsettling, especially when they lift their heads and peer around with their camera.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of math that goes into that kind of movement, especially over uneven, unpredictable terrain. Choset and Carnegie Mellon researchers David Rollinson recently released a paper detailing how the snakes can overcome tough terrain by autonomously correcting for obstacles. The snakes were found to perform particularly well when climbing up pipes.