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Snake robots can cross rough terrain to help with searching and rescue

A snake robot that can skilfully slide its way up has been developed by scientists to help search and rescue missions.

American engineers studied how lifelike snakes moved and used their observations to make a snake robot that can climb large stairs.

It is thought that snake robots could one day help explore inaccessible terrain, such as building debris after an earthquake.

The breakthrough in robot technology uses an ‘auto-like suspension’ to keep the robot on wheels horizontal while climbing tricky stairs.

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The Terradynamics Lab of Johns Hopkins University has made this snake robot to simulate its animal counterpart, the kingsnake

The Terradynamics Lab of Johns Hopkins University has made this snake robot to simulate its animal counterpart, the kingsnake

“We look at these scary creatures for motion inspiration because they are already so skilled at stably scaling obstacles in their daily lives,” said senior author Chen Li, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

“Hopefully our robot can learn how to float and weave over surfaces, just like snakes.”

Snakes live in different environments, ranging from hot deserts to lush tropical forests, where they slip up trees, rocks and shrubs every day.

Previous studies had mainly looked at snake movements on flat surfaces, but rarely in 3D terrain except on trees.

Professor Li said these studies do not necessarily explain the real major obstacles that search and rescue robots should climb.

Researchers first studied how the kingsnake – which can be found in both deserts and pine forests – stepped into Professor Li Terradynamics Lab on the university campus in Baltimore, Maryland.

“These snakes have to travel regularly over boulders and fallen trees – they are the masters of movement and there is much we can learn from them,” he said.

The team divided the movement of a kingsnake as it climbed the stairs into three sections and used it to build a robot version

The team divided the movement of a kingsnake as it climbed the stairs into three sections and used it to build a robot version

The team divided the movement of a kingsnake as it climbed the stairs into three sections and used it to build a robot version

“It’s a generalist, meaning it can live and move well in many types of environments,” said Qiyuan Fu, graduate researcher at Johns Hopkins.

The scientists simply observed how the creature slid up the stairs.

The study – which is published in Royal Society Open Science – discovered that the snakes divided their bodies into three parts.

Their front and back squirmed back and forth on the horizontal steps like a wave, while their middle part of the body remained stiff and so floated to bridge the large step.

Scientists have found that the winding parts provide stability to prevent the hose from tipping.

The snake-like body is divided into 10 sections with a total of 10 wheels on each side to climb stairs

The snake-like body is divided into 10 sections with a total of 10 wheels on each side to climb stairs

The snake-like body is divided into 10 sections with a total of 10 wheels on each side to climb stairs

As more of the snake reached the rung, its front part of the body would become longer and its rear part shorter.

At the same time, the central body remained approximately the same length, suspended vertically above the two steps.

If the steps became longer and smoother, the hoses would move slower and turn less on their front and rear body to maintain stability.

Using this information, the team created a robot to mimic the movements of the king snakes and replicate the wave-like oscillation pattern.

Researchers have introduced springs to mimic the ability of a real snake to maintain good body support and prevent it from falling over

Researchers have introduced springs to mimic the ability of a real snake to maintain good body support and prevent it from falling over

Researchers have introduced springs to mimic the ability of a real snake to maintain good body support and prevent it from falling over

After their robotic hose could not climb the stairs without tilting sideways and falling, the team added an “auto-like suspension” to the design of the robot, consisting of a spring between the body and the wheels.

This allowed the robot to stay flat while climbing the stairs.

The researchers say that their creation even came close to the speed of an actual snake.

But the added hanging system – needed to keep the machine stable in large steps – meant that the robot consumes more electricity.

“The animal is still much better, but these results are promising for the field of robots that can ride over large obstacles,” said Professor Li.

The team plans to test and improve the snake robot for even more complex 3D terrain with more unstructured major obstacles.

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