Robotics researchers on Thursday said they conducted experiments to learn how sidewinder rattlesnakes are able to climb sandy hills, then applied the reptiles’ repertoire to an existing snake robot so it could do the same thing.
The study, published in the journal Science, is an example of how scientists are applying knowledge of biology to improve technology.
Snake-like robots, rather than robots that move on wheels, offer unique capabilities for complicated tasks such as search-and-rescue operations in collapsed structures and inspecting nuclear power plants, the researchers said.
“The snake robot can thread through tightly packed space to access locations that people and conventional machinery cannot,” Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute professor Howie Choset said.
“Snakes are the champion animal for moving on a wide range of complex terrain,” Carnegie Mellon robotics researcher Hamid Marvi said. “They have different gaits and can switch between them as needed. They have a special gait, sidewinding, for ... climbing on sandy hills.”
The researchers observed the venomous sidewinder rattlesnake species Crotalus cerastes, native to the US southwest, in a large enclosure at Zoo Atlanta filled with sand from the Arizona desert.
They adjusted the enclosure to create different angles in the sand and used high-speed video to better understand how the snakes were moving.
They found that the snakes improved their ability to climb sandy slopes by increasing the amount of their body that makes contact with the surface, using a wave motion.
The researchers applied their observations to a snake robot developed at Carnegie Mellon. That “snakebot” had been able to use one element of sidewinding motion to traverse level terrain, but was unable to climb sandy inclines.
However, once the snakebot was programmed with the rattlesnake’s wave motion, it succeeded.
“Now the robot can climb on inclinations of up to 20 degrees on loose sand,” Marvi said.
The snakebot is made up of a series of 17 aluminum links with 16 joints and is about 94cm long and 5cm in diameter.
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