Japanese Snake Robot Goes Where Humans Can't

This spy bot can move inside air ducts and other narrow places where people can't, or don't want to, go

2 min read
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:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/E0oN9yz5pTw?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

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:

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/zPvrAiYN9FQ?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

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.

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/10aIZcjgSYE?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

[youtube //www.youtube.com/v/_5PplUmtEvA?fs=1&hl=en_US expand=1]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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