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Carnegie Mellon University snake robot slithers past tight spots

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Howie Choset, Carnegie Mellon University professor of biorobotics, holds a snakebot, a robot that can access tight areas in nuclear power plants or collapsed buildings, and help in many other uses. Friday, July 12, 2013.

Sunday, July 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

A snake robot developed at Carnegie Mellon University has slithered through tight spaces in voids under Egypt's Great Pyramid of Giza and crawled through the rubble of collapsed buildings in urban search-and-rescue exercises, each time sending back images from its journey.

It is making a bid to prove its worth in tight spots that inspectors cannot access in nuclear power plants, following a test deployment through a nest of winding pipes at an inactive nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf, Austria, this year.

The 37-inch-long modular, metal snake looks like a child's toy.

That image was quickly dispelled last week as it slithered across the floor in professor Howie Choset's basement-level biorobotics lab in CMU's Newell Simon Hall and began winding its way up a reporter's leg.

A group of researchers at the end of a tether working the remote controls just grinned.

“Instead of studying snakes, we tell biologists how real snakes work,” Choset said.

He said much of the group's research involved basic science such as mechanism design, path planning and motion control. That work led to developments in algorithms for path-finding through minefields, Choset said.

A tiny snake robot Choset collaborated on with Dr. Marco Zenati, a former UPMC surgeon and a professor at Harvard Medical School, is being developed for use in minimally invasive surgery.

The snake robot that inspected the inner workings of the Zwentendorf plant is the most recent model in a line Choset began developing 17 years ago. It features an LED light and camera on its head, designed by CMU researcher Martial Herbert, who specializes in computer vision and perception.

Choset said the snake's ability to squeeze through openings to access tanks or storage casks, in areas too deadly for humans and too small for conventional robots, is a major advantage.

Martin Fries, an engineer for EVN, the company that owns the power plant, told the CMU team that with refinement the snake could provide quick answers for nuclear plant operators and help reduce downtime.

Larry Foulke, former president of the American Nuclear Society and an adjunct professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, said many developments sharply improved the work of borescopes since Three Mile Island heightened safety concerns 34 years ago.

“It is a ‘wow' machine. And there are certainly going to be more applications for this in the future,” Foulke said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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