Realistic robots wriggle off the drawing board

November 30, 1999

GEEKS growing bored with Sony's robotic dogs could one day replace their motorised mutts with another high-tech toy: a robotic snake that moves just like the real thing. The technology could also be used to create robots capable of handling the toughest terrain-perhaps even on other planets.

Gavin Miller, an animator in Palo Alto, California, has built the most lifelike robotic snakes yet created, in his garage. He has managed to reproduce both the slithering and the sidewinding motions used by the reptiles.

Previous attempts to make robotic snakes have usually involved copying the way a caterpillar inches along by arching its body upwards, rather than a snake's slither. "This is by far the most realistic and sophisticated [robotic] snake that I have seen," says Gary Haith, a robotics engineer at NASA's Ames Research Center, who is designing ways to explore rough extraterrestrial terrains.

Miller originally started trying to reproduce snakes' movements for an animated film. Having developed an algorithm that worked in the virtual world, he decided to see if it would work in the real world, too. Eventually, he says, he would like to build a robot snake capable of climbing trees.

Miller hopes to sell his design to toy makers. He believes he has cracked the problem that has kept toy makers away: the cost. His new design could sell for only a few hundred dollars.

But it's not just about toys. Biomimetics, as copying ideas from nature is called, could push the boundaries of robotics. "The hope is if we have biologically inspired robots, they would be able to go over a wide variety of terrain," he says.

Although there is a wheel under each segment of Miller's snakes, much like those on a Rollerblade, they are not motorised, says Miller. Instead they are free running and merely reduce friction with the ground. Haith says it's much harder to make snakes move naturally without wheels.

Miller's latest model, a 7-kilogram polycarbonate and brass beast, has over 30 segments. The segments are connected by a central spine and each have a pair of electrical servomotors. These push the connecting rods that make the snake's segments bend (see Diagram).

A motion starts at the robot's head. When the servos are activated, neighbouring segments bend in relation to each other and a sideways force is exerted on the wheels. "These lateral forces on the wheels cause it to move along," Miller explains. The motors in the next segment are then activated, and then the next, and so on.

The snakes are controlled with two joysticks much like a radio-controlled aircraft. "They needed to be simple to drive," he says. One is for steering and speed. The other controls the sidewinding movement as well as lift.
Author: Duncan Graham-Rowe New Scientist issue 4th December 99 Videos at:


New Scientist

Related Snake Articles from Brightsurf:

First evidence of snake-like venom glands found in amphibians
Caecilians are limbless amphibians that can be easily mistaken for snakes.

Snake venom evolved for prey not protection
It is estimated that every year, over 100,000 human deaths can be attributed to snakebite from the world's 700 venomous snake species -- all inflicted in self-defence when the snakes feel threatened by encroaching humans.

Vibes before it bites: 10 types of defensive behaviour for the false coral snake
The False Coral Snake (Oxyrhopus rhombifer) may be capable of recognising various threat levels and demonstrates ten different defensive behaviours, seven of which are registered for the first time for the species.

Warming mountaintops put snake at risk of extinction
Climate change is a key factor contributing to the likely extinction of the Greek meadow viper, a new study has found.

When frogs die off, snake diversity plummets
A new study in the journal Science, shows that the snake community become more homogenized and the number of species declined dramatically after chytrid fungus decimated frog populations in a remote forest in Panama.

Venom-producing snake organoids developed in the lab
A team of scientists from the group of Hans Clevers at the Hubrecht Institute, the Netherlands, has developed a mini-venom glands of various snake species.

Snake stem cells used to create venom-producing organoids
Organoids have become an important tool for studying many disease processes and testing potential drugs.

Snake-like proteins can wrangle DNA
Theoretical simulations at Rice University suggest structural maintenance of chromosome proteins coil not only around each other but also around the strands of DNA they help manipulate.

An ancient snake's cheekbone sheds light on evolution of modern snake skulls
New research from a collaboration between Argentinian and University of Alberta palaeontologists adds a new piece to the puzzle of snake evolution.

Tropical sea snake uses its head to 'breathe'
Humans use a snorkel and fish have gills. Now researchers have found a sea snake which uses a complex system of blood vessels in its head to draw in extra oxygen when it dives and swims underwater.

Read More: Snake News and Snake Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to