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Robot snakes slither forward

Trend in biologically inspired robots turns to nature's underbelly.

There's no doubt that many scientists are looking to nature for mechanical inspiration. This past spring we have seen robotic bugs, robo-fish, and perhaps even the promise of a robotic dolphin.

For its design of a robot for use inside pipes, the SINTEF ICT part of the SINTEF Group, a Norway-based technology research company, was inspired by snakes.

New robotic snake design can climb pipes vertically. SINTEF ICT

The robot as designed (it's still not a finished prototype) maneuvers itself not only horizontally like a team of train cars, but can climb vertically as needed inside pipes with a squirming motion.

"When the robot enters a vertical pipe, it lifts its head in the pipe and meets the pipe wall. It can then either move sideways with its abdomen against the pipe and twist itself upwards or it can topple backwards, attach itself to the pipe wall, in the same way as we would put our feet against a shaft wall to hold on, and then roll upwards," according to a statement from SINTEF.

The final robot will be approximately 1.5 meters long, made of aluminum and consist of about 11 modules connected by joints. SINTEF sees its robots being used to check on the quality of oil and gas pipelines, or as a cleaning tool in ventilation systems.

But right now, the SINTEF snake can not autonomously navigate any set of strange pipes. The team is currently using a Lego Mindstorms robot with an attached camera that navigates a pre-programmed pipe system. The roboticists are working on a visual system that would allow the robot to detect pipe turns ahead of time so that it could navigate itself as needed through any system of pipes. A prototype of that robot should be complete by the end of 2008, according to SINTEF.

ACM-R5 Hirose Lab, Dept. of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Tokyo Instite of Technology

The SINTEF robot could be considered a distant cousin to the ACM-R5 amphibious robot that came out of the Hirose-Fukushima Robotics Lab at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan.

The ACM-R5 robot can slither both on land and in water.

Shigeo Hirose, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, has been working on what he refers to as "serpent robots" and serpentine locomotion since the 1970s.

The ACM-R5 robot that came out of Hirose's lab first debuted at the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan with improved versions shown publicly in 2007. An incredibly life-like snake robot, it is shown in the video below, gliding through water in a test pool.

Carnegie Mellon's roboticists, meanwhile, have their own Snakebot slithering in the labs.