Demo: A Versatile Snake Robot That Masters Tough Terrain and Climbs Metal Walls

Sarcos brought its Guardian S snake robot to Spectrum's office for a demo

3 min read
A snake robot slides up a set of stairs.
The Guardian S snakebot is intended to glide effortlessly up stairs, as shown in this press photo. But it had a little trouble with stairs during its demo at IEEE Spectrum.
Photo: Sarcos

Last week, a visitor slithered through the IEEE Spectrum office.

The robotics company Sarcos had brought around its new snake robot, the Guardian S, to show off its moves. While it performed its tricks—shimmying sideways, rolling over, rearing up, and even sliding its magnetized body straight up a metal door—an impressed staff member mentioned that his son would love to have a snakebot to play with. “We’re taking orders if you want one!” said Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff. “Only $60,000.”

Of course, the Guardian S isn’t meant to be a pet or a plaything; the applications Wolff rattles off are in the realms of industry and security. As an agile surveillance agent, the snakebot could conduct inspections in confined spaces or in hazmat conditions, help with search and rescue after a disaster, or assist bomb squads and SWAT teams. 

“We wanted to solve the problems that result from humans going into dangerous places and doing dangerous jobs,” Wolff says. The robot’s task, he says, is “to extract information from a dangerous environment.” While drones are increasingly being used for surveillance in such environments, Wolff argues that aerial robots are limited in their flight time and how close they can get to whatever they’re inspecting. 

Sarcos, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, wanted to build a versatile robot that could find wide use, so they designed a customizable platform to meet the user’s needs. At its most basic, it simply sends back audio and video from the cameras on all sides of its head. But customers can outfit the 6-kilogram snakebot with up to 4.5 kg of sensors such as gas or vibration detectors. “You dream it up, we can put it in there,” Wolff says.

Snake robot from Scaros in its carrying case along with its controller.The Sarcos snakebot and its controller in a carrying case.Photo: Sarcos

The base price is US $60,000, with customization costing extra. But Sarcos also offers a “robot-as-service” plan for $2000 per month, which comes with service, training, and upgrades. The company is taking orders now, and Wolff says they’ll start shipping in August. 

The Guardian S can run for 18 hours in regular inspection mode, or for 4 hours of continuous driving. The operator guides the bot with a video game-like controller, and can communicate with it using a tether, or wirelessly via Wi-Fi, LTE, or a proprietary radio system. 

The base price is US $60,000, with customization costing extra. But Sarcos also offers a “robot-as-service” plan for $2000 per month, which comes with service, training, and upgrades.

The robot’s rugged and waterproof body is intended for all types of rough terrain and complex industrial environments, but the Sarcos demo team ran into trouble in the stairwell of the office tower where IEEE Spectrum has its home. The stairs are covered with glossy paint, and the Guardian S climbed only a few steps before it started spinning its treads, unable to get a proper grip. Sarcos president Fraser Smith, who was handling the controls, said they’ve tested the bot on all manner of metal and concrete steps, but not painted ones. “We have to work on that,” he said ruefully, before sending the snakebot downstairs and showing off its ability to climb metal walls.

The current model relies entirely on its operator for navigation, but Wolff says that SLAM is on the company’s research roadmap. He was quick to qualify that statement, though. “With our robots, everything is about augmenting human performance, it’s not about eliminating the human being.” SLAM could make a snakebot easier to use, he says, because it could self-adjust to obstacles faster than the operator could issue commands. “But we’re not interested in having the machines make judgment calls—we always want there to be a human mind in charge.”

The snakebot rolls over rocky terrain.

Photo: Sarcos
The Sarcos snakebot rolling over rocky terrain.

Sarcos has been in the robotics business for about 20 years, but the Guardian S is its first product since it reemerged as an independent company after seven years of ownership by the military contractor Raytheon.

Wolff says that after going independent and rounding up investment from the likes of GE, Caterpillar, and Microsoft, the company finally had the mandate and funds to get serious about both a commercial snakebot and a prototype for a new Iron Man-style exoskeleton. Wolff says the prototype of the Guardian XO exoskeleton, which will enable factory workers to easily lift 90-kg loads, should be ready in 2018.

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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