Magazine article Science News

Building Robots That Slither

Magazine article Science News

Building Robots That Slither

Article excerpt

Howie Choset is a roboticist, but his team's creations bear little resemblance to C-3PO or R2-D2. Instead, Choset finds inspiration in nature--specifically, snakes.

"A lot of people have this notion that robots are modeled after people," says Choset, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But the animal kingdom is full of organisms that use different types of locomotion, he says.

The Snake robots in Choset's laboratory can slither, roll, swim and climb straight up. These slender machines, usually built from a series of metal pieces containing motors and electronics, can also squeeze into tight spaces.

Choset (below) enjoyed motorizing toys as a kid, and in high school he built a robot that could maneuver around obstacles. He first encountered snakelike robots in his graduate adviser's lab at Caltech and realized that the machines could navigate a greater range of environments than typical robots, such as small openings, uneven surfaces and poles. "If you have to cross a field, swim a moat, burrow through a little hole in a fence and climb a pole, there's no other robot that can do all those things," says Choset. He now has his own menagerie of serpentine bots, with the latest red, white and blue version (above right) dubbed "Uncle Sam." His team wrestles with challenges such as developing algorithms to control the robots' many independent joints and figuring out the right gaits to over-come specific obstacles. To ascend a pole, for instance, the robot must twist into a helix and roll upward. …

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