I’ve never been able to quite figure out why I hate snakes, but my disdain of slithering serpents extends to the robot variety as well. I’m sure part of it comes from the way they wriggle and writhe to get around; it just freaks me out. But at the same time, I’m also impressed that robotics researchers have taught robo-snakes how to climb obstacles like a ladder.
The simplistic design of a robot snake—a long articulated tube—is also what makes them appealing for a variety of applications. Sending one slithering down a pipe to look for blockages or damage is one obvious application, but they can also be useful for traversing countless types of terrain. Two-legged robots that walk are getting better at it, but the act of balancing is computationally intensive, resulting in robots like Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS costing millions of dollars.
Snakes are much simpler life forms than humans, and emulating how they move and locomote results in a simpler and cheaper robot, at least compared to a two-legged humanoid. And now, thanks to a joint research project at Kyoto University and the University of Electro-Communications in Japan, roboticists have improved where robot snakes can go. A newly developed gait, which has this robot snake bending and twisting its smooth body to create a series of connected shapes, allows it to slowly but securely wrap itself around each rung as it climbs a ladder.
It isn’t going to win any ladder-climbing races, but it means this robot can now more accurately recreate the abilities of a real snake, which include climbing trees and other obstacles. For disaster recovery situations, which robots like these are often developed for, the robo-snake could more easily traverse piles of rubble or damaged infrastructure that lay in ruins, which even humans, and human-like robots, would have trouble with.