At some point, to be sustainable, research has to make a jump from "do it because it’s cool" to "do it because it’s actually useful and has some sort of practical application that people need and/or will pay for." That’s a big, big jump to make, and many robots don’t successfully cross the gap. We've been hearing for years that Carnegie Mellon’s snakebots are just the thing to undertake inspection tasks in places like nuclear power plants, but now, CMU has put its robots where its papers are, and have stuffed these things into an actual nuclear power reactor. As you can see above, they've even got the snakes operating the controls. Nope, no reason to worry about that, none at all.
It’s within the realm of possibility, I suppose, that the picture above shows a snake robot on a control panel as opposed to operating a control panel, but that’s somewhat safer and less exciting. Besides, controlling stuff generally requires, you know, limbs. Snakebots don’t have those, which is why they’re able to do stuff like this:
Luckily for the snakebots, the Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant in Austria isn't operational. It’s the real deal, but the Austrians never started cooking anything in it, so it’s the ideal testing facility for robot inspectors.
This particular snakebot is two inches (5 cm) in diameter and 37 inches (94 cm) long, with a total of 16 degrees of freedom. A nose mounted camera and LEDs stream video back to inspectors through a physical tether. It’s essentially like a borescope, except much more capable, says CMU robotics professor Howie Choset:
"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." You heard it here first, folks: robots are better than wet noodles.
Speaking of wet noodles, the robot is not currently waterproof or radiation hardened, but they’re working on it. And the 60 foot (18 m) maximum deployment length during these tests was due to caution; the robot is capable of traveling as far as it needs to, with the addition of some sort of second robot that lives on the tether itself, zipping up and down it and managing the tether around bends in the pipe to make sure that the robot can always be yanked out if necessary.
But wait! there’s more!
Choset said the video imagery possible with the snake robot is superior to what is available through a borescope, which has only limited ability to change its camera angle. Further development could enable the snake robot to perform simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), a robotic technique that would produce a map of a nuclear plant’s pipe network as it exists.
I would hope that when someone builds a nuclear power plant, they generally keep track of where all the pipes are, where they go, and what’s running through them, but who knows. This capability would be particularly useful if (when) there’s ever another nuclear disaster, so we just have to hope that these snakebots are ready to be airdropped into cooling towers
[ CMU Biorobotics ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.