The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

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. 

[shortcode ieee-pullquote quote="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." float="right" expand=1]

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.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less