Serpentine robot scales new heights

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A modular snake robot fitted with a camera has been shown to be able to crawl through and inspect steam pipes and connecting vessels in an Austrian nuclear power plant. The robot was developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute as a mobile device that is able to inspect areas humans would find difficult to reach.

The snake robot was able to manoeuvre through multiple bends, slip through open valves and negotiate vessels with multiple openings. With a video camera and LED light on its head, the snake was able to peer into holes and get multiple views of items inside the pipes.

Though the robot’s body twists, turns and rotates as it moves through or over pipes, the view from the video feed was corrected so that it was always aligned with gravity. This 'right-side-up' video feature made controlling the robot more intuitive and helped engineers better understand what the robot was seeing, said robotics professor Howie Choset.

'Our robot can go places people can’t, particularly in areas of power plants that are radioactively contaminated,' Choset said. 'It can go up and around multiple bends, something you can’t do with a conventional borescope, a flexible tube that can only be pushed through a pipe like a wet noodle.'

Members of the CMU Biorobotics Lab, working with representatives of the plant owner, EVN Group, sent their snake robot into a variety of pipes at the Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant in May. The boiling-water reactor was built in the 1970s, but was never operated. Its lack of radioactive contamination makes it suitable for research, testing and educational purposes.

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