Japanese Snake Robot Goes Where Humans Can't

Japanese robotics company HiBot has unveiled a nimble snake bot capable of moving inside air ducts and other narrow places where people can't, or don't want to, go.

The ACM-R4H robot, designed for remote inspection and surveillance in confined environments, uses small wheels to move but it can slither and undulate and even raise its head like a cobra.

The new robot, which is half a meter long and weighs in at 4.5 kilograms, carries a camera and LEDs on its head for image acquisition and can be fitted with other end-effectors such as mechanical grippers or thermo/infrared vision systems.

Despite its seemingly complex motion capabilities, "the control of the robot is quite simple and doesn't require too much training," says robotics engineer and HiBot cofounder Michele Guarnieri.

"All [degrees of freedom] can be easily controlled by a game-style joystick, including the motion of recovering from an upside-down position."

The company says applications include the inspection of ducts, pipes, and ceilings, as well as remote surveillance and security. Indeed, I bet the CIA and other spy agencies could find some uses for this bot!

Watch the ACM-R4H in action:

HiBot is a spin-off of Tokyo Tech's Hirose-Fukushima Lab, which has brought to life some of the world's most amazing mechanical snakes. The company is transforming some of the research creatures into commercial-grade systems.

The ACM-R4H is smaller than other HiBot snake models, so it can easily enter and zigzag through tight spaces. The head and tail segments can move up and down and the middle joint can turn left and right.

It can negotiate 90 degree corners inside an air duct, for instance, or move inside pipes less than 14 centimeters in diameter. It can also overcome obstacles on its path.

The current version relies on a tether connected to a control unit, which provides communication and power (the control box has a rechargeable battery that lasts for over 3 hours).

The user interface shows images from the camera and a set of data from the robot, including power consumption, temperature, and position of each joint. It also shows a 3D image of the robot's current position that the operator can use for assisting with navigation.

Another tool to help with controlling and planning missions for the robot is a 3D simulator, called V-REP, that HiBot offers with its robots or as a stand-alone program:

HiBot, which also develops power line inspection robots, says some customers using the robot -- and most won't disclose what they're using for -- had no issues with the tether. "But we can change the robot architecture to have wireless communication," Guarnieri says.

And though the robot is resistant to water splashes, it can be made completely waterproof, he adds. You never know what people will use it for...

Below, some more snake bot videos, just because it's so cool to watch these lifelike machines. The first video shows the ACM-R3H, which is a long wheeled machine -- watch the entertaining demonstration on a Japanese TV show!

The other video shows the ACM-R5H, capable of slithering on the ground and also swimming. Yes, this snake bot swims just like the real thing.

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