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Snakebot searches for earthquake survivors

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

On Sept. 19, the sandy ground below the Mexico City area violently shook with a magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 magnitude 8.0 Mexico City earthquake. Last month’s earthquake killed nearly 400 people, injured over 6,000, and caused major structural damage in Mexico City and surrounding areas, including over forty building collapses.

In the frantic search and rescue operation that followed in the city, Carnegie Mellon researchers deployed a “Snakebot” — a robot that is built to “slither” in a flexible manner similar to that of a real snake — at a collapsed apartment building in hopes that it could mitigate the scale of the tragedy there and be a prototype for similar future robots that can assist in urban search-and-rescue.
Howie Choset, a robotics professor who has been a leader in developing snakebots, explained in an interview with The Tartan that the conception for the Snakebot first came from Joel Burdick, advisor to Choset, and Burdick’s graduate student Greg Chirikjian. Since the shape and size of the robot make it ideal for getting into tight spaces, urban search-and-rescue has long been considered a potential application for snakebots.

The project was funded by the National Center for Defense Robotics, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

The robot deployed in Mexico City was two inches in diameter and 37 inches long, and the body was connected to a control and power cable. It had 16 modules on its body connected by joints that allowed it to move in a variety of configurations — much like a snake’s natural movement — as well as take on positions that utilize its mechanical characteristics, such as rolling over. The head of the robot contained lights and a video camera.

Although the particular robot deployed in Mexico City did not find any survivors, Matt Travers, systems scientist in the university’s Robotics Institute and co-director of the Biorobotics Lab that developed the Snakebot, nevertheless gave the robot a positive evaluation. “[T]he Mexican Red Cross workers with us said they would like to have a similar tool in the future,” said Travers in a university press release.

The Mexico City deployment was also the first time that it had been tested in a real-world disaster zone. Before, the only tests were done in simulated disaster settings.

The project and deployment have already attracted high-level attention within the university. “What happened in Mexico City... I believe, is just the beginning of what will someday be a heroic story for robots. I’m particularly impressed by the energy, enterprise, and bravery displayed by [the Carnegie Mellon team that traveled to Mexico] in getting our robot into some very dangerous places,” said Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, in the press release.

Choset explained in the university press release that the deployment helped the researchers identify the capabilities of the robot and areas that would require additional research to make the robot a more useful search-and-rescue assistant, in addition to underscoring the need for further funding to develop newer and better robots. He pointed out that the deployed robot is over a decade old and that it “is on its last legs, even though it doesn’t have any.” Travers added that capabilities to incorporate into the robot in the future should include sensors to detect gas leaks in the rubble and microphones and speakers to help in finding and rescuing survivors trapped under collapsed buildings.

In the interview with The Tartan, Choset expressed hope that researchers will soon develop “[m]ore modular robots to make all sorts of robot shapes.”

Besides post-disaster search-and-rescue operations, other applications of the robot could include surveillance and inspection of industrial complexes such as nuclear power plants and archaeological exploration.