CMU Researchers Create Snake-Like Robots to Patrol Nuke Plants

Jul 15, 2013

What’s two inches in diameter, four-foot-long and can find a leak in the most remote area of a failing nuclear power plant? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say it's one of their snake-like robots. 

“Some of these nuclear plants are like jungle gyms of pipe networks where it's really hard for conventional wheeled robot to get in and out, so we are entertaining the use of these snake robots to maneuver in these nuclear power plants,” said CMU robotics professor Howie Choset.

Choset’s lab has created 28 different kinds of snake robots. Some are so small that they can move through the human body making repairs to a patient’s heart. Others, like the one just tested at a never-commissioned nuclear power plant in Austria, keep the same diameter but can vary in length.

“It’s a modular robot so that means we can add or take away modules so we can change the length,” Choset said. “Sometimes you want a smaller robot if you want to get into really tight spaces with lots of tight turns.  Other times you want a longer robot if you want to climb over even bigger features.”

During the recent test, Choset said his team was able to get the robot and its sensing equipment into areas that are not assessable by humans, including down long pipes. 

The robot can survive drops of up to 20 feet and can dive down up to 200 feet under water without failing. 

Choset said he will not speculate on how long it will take to get the robot to market. He said that all depends on how much money an investor or research program is willing to throw at the product. However, he guesses it could take as little as two years.

When a disaster like the one seen at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan hits, first responders and plant operators are often left waiting for specialized equipment to help rescue victims and assess damage.  Few plants are willing to keep such equipment on hand, but Choset thinks his snake-like robot might provide a solution.

“What we are trying to do with our snake robots is come up with inspection tools that people in nuclear plants can use on a day-to-day basis," Choset said. "In other words, justify the expense of having these robots in the first place so that, heaven forbid there is a disaster, we have tools ready to help address those problems.”

The snake robot can climb up the inside and the outside of pipes, can stand on a base created by its tail and can even swim across a lake if it is fitted with a special sleeve.

The snake robot has also been used in mock search and rescue situations and in archeological explorations looking for shipwrecks in the Red Sea.