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Should every nuclear plant have snake robots?

A Carnegie Mellon test shows that modular crawling robots can get deep into pipes at a nuclear facility, something that could help with inspections.

Modular Snake Robot
CMU Biorobotics Lab

We've all seen "Snakes on a Plane." OK, I haven't and don't plan to. But anyway, picture this: snake robots in a nuclear plant. Can you hear that Hollywood option in the pipe?

Yessir, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University are convinced that sending snake-like robots slithering through nuclear power plants is a good idea. They've even tested the concept at a plant in Austria and it may help inspectors.

With a video camera and an LED light on its head, the reptilian machine was able to wriggle into pipes, valves, and vessels, relaying footage that can be used to check for hazardous wear and damage in pipes that are contaminated and hard to access.

While the multi-joined, modular snake-bot corkscrewed through the pipes, the footage it sent back was automatically corrected so that it was always aligned with gravity.

The farthest the robot went into a pipe was 60 feet. Check out the test in the video below taken at Austria's Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant.

"Our robot can go places people can't, particularly in areas of power plants that are radioactively contaminated," CMU professor Howie Choset of the Biorobotics Lab said in a release.

"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."

Zwentendorf is a boiling water plant that was built in the 1970s but never used, and its lack of radiation makes it ideal for this type of research. It could also make the perfect movie set.

The Modular Snake Robot is 37 inches long, 2 inches across, and consists of 16 modules with a long tether to its control box.

It was described in a 2007 IEEE paper (PDF), and has also been tested in rubble to simulate search and rescue operations, as well as archeological digs.

The nuclear plant test suggested the snake-bot could be a key tool for maintenance, and further development may see it becoming waterproof and performing simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) to chart the pipes it wriggles through.

Or you could see it starring alongside Samuel L. Jackson.