Snakes never let a lack of legs keep them down. These limbless reptiles can climb trees, swim and even glide through the air, but even moving on the ground comes with its challenges, especially on sand. Anybody who has tried to run through sand knows how difficult it can be. At Carnegie Mellon University a robotic snake was designed as an insight into making better search and rescue robots.
The sidewinder rattlesnake robot- a mechanical serpent that can actually move across sandy surfaces, both flat and inclined has been built by Howie Choset, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University. Choset teamed up with Daniel Goldman, a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology to see whether they could understand how the sidewinder snake was moving and perhaps apply that to improve their own robot. To get the robot moving over sandy dunes, the researchers applied what they now know about the sidewinder rattlesnake’s patterns of movement. They programmed the robot so that more of its body would come into contact with the ground as it slides up the slope. They also applied what they had learned about force, which enable s the robot to move its weight in such a way that it keeps moving upward over the sand without rolling back down the slope. Before the study, the robot only used one component of the sidewinder motion to relocate across level ground. However, it could not climb sand slopes like real sidewinder snakes do.
“Our initial idea was to use the robot as a physical model to learn what the snakes experienced,” said Daniel Goldman. “By studying the animal and the physical model simultaneously, we learned important general principle that allowed us to not only understand the animal, but also to improve the robot.”
This robotic serpent’s ability to shimmy up slippery sand dunes could inspire new technologies for robots that could perform search and rescue missions and carry out inspections of hazardous wastes. Now that Choset’s snake robot can move over tough terrains, it will be better equipped to handle the tasks it was built to tackle. Biology, Robotics, and Physics have teamed up nicely to help with research that can help the future.