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Japan's advanced snake robot for disaster site inspection

Latest version can scale ladders and wind its way up drainpipes

By positioning its center of gravity, the robot can be made to climb ladders placed at a 75-degree angle. (Courtesy of Kyoto University professor Fumitoshi Matsuno)

TOKYO -- A team of researchers in Japan has developed an advanced snake-shaped robot that can climb ladders and wind its way up drainpipes, raising hopes that such devices will soon be used in surveying inaccessible locations in disaster-hit areas.

The latest version marks significant progress in Japan's development of snake robots. Previous iterations have struggled with certain obstacles, often getting caught due to their complex structure or protrusions from their surface.

The new robot, which is 2.5 meters long and weighs 6kg, can be used for the inspection of collapsed buildings, according to Fumitoshi Matsuno, the robotics professor at Kyoto University leading the project. His team aims to put the device into practical use within two to three years.

Matsuno was also involved in the development of the previous version, which was designed for use in decommissioning the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

The new robot’s frame was created using a three-dimensional printer, and has 36 joints equipped with angle sensors that can gauge the shape of the body.

The joints have a 180-degree range of movement, allowing the robot to easily change its shape, while the smooth surface with few protrusions makes it less prone to getting stuck on obstacles.

The device can, for example, climb up and down a ladder by altering its body shape. Using a laser sensor attached to the tip, it detects the distance between each rung, works out the ideal trajectory and contorts itself to clamber its way up.

Through calculated positioning of the center of gravity, the robot can even scale a ladder placed at 75-degree angle, a feat past versions have been unable to manage.

On flat surfaces, the robot wiggles its way along in much the same way as a real snake, and it can climb steps 20cm to 30cm high. It can also make its way up a pillar or pipe by coiling its body around it.

The device is controlled remotely by an operator who can see images from a camera mounted on the tip. Each joint does not need to be manipulated individually; the operator merely has to input which way the robot should proceed after selecting the appropriate shape.

The team will partner with companies to conduct initial trials, and use the robot to inspect spaces under roofs and flooring as well as through narrow pipes.

Practical use can begin once the durability and water and dust resistance have been enhanced.

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