'Breadstick' and 'Pepperoni' are being tested
PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (AP) -- For most people, snakes seem unpleasant or even threatening. But Howie Choset sees in their delicate movements a way to save lives.
Chris Borer shows off a snake robot's pipe climbing ability at the Carnegie Mellon robotics lab.
he 37-year-old Carnegie Mellon University professor has spent years developing snakelike robots he hopes will eventually slither through collapsed buildings in search of victims trapped after natural disasters or other emergencies.
In recent weeks, Choset and some of his students made what he said was an industry breakthrough: enabling the articulated, remote-controlled devices to climb up and around pipes.
Rescue workers say such robots would be useful because current equipment has limited mobility and usually has to be lowered into fallen structures, Choset said.
"Right now, the way to get to these trapped survivors is to pull the rubble out one rock at a time," Choset said. "So our dream is to have the snake robot thread through this collapsed rubble and get to victims more quickly."
Robot demand rises with big disasters
He said it generally takes about 90 minutes for rescue workers to gain access to a disaster site, while a robot can immediately delve into rubble. They are also safer because "you don't have people pushing rocks around you," he said.
Dan Kara is president of Robotics Trends, a company that publishes an online industry magazine and runs robotics trade shows. He said there are other snakelike robots being developed, mainly at universities, but did not know of one that could climb pipes.
Kara also said the market for rescue robots has expanded as high-profile disasters have unfolded in recent years.
The Carnegie Mellon machines are designed to carry cameras and electronic sensors and can be controlled with a joystick. They wriggle with the help of small electric motors, or servos, commonly used by hobbyists in model airplanes.
Built from lightweight aluminum or plastic, the robots are about the size of a human arm or smaller. They are semiautonomous and can sense which way is up, but are only as good as their human operators.
"The rescue workers are the heroes," he said. "These are just better tools."
The robots, with nicknames such as "Breadstick" and "Pepperoni," have successfully climbed up the insides and outsides of storm drains, negotiated large gaps between pieces of debris, and maneuvered through underbrush and fences, Choset said.
At a Carnegie Mellon lab, one of the robots wiggled up and down a clear plastic tube.
Sam Stover, a search team manager with the Federal Emergency Management Agency based in Indiana, said sniffer dogs are still the best search tool for rescue workers, but that they can only be used effectively when workers have access to damaged buildings.
Stover, among the rescue workers who handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said snake robots would have helped rescuers search flooded houses in that disaster.
Choset said the robots may not be ready for use for another five to 10 years, depending on funding.
For now, he and his team plan to continue testing the machines at mock disaster sites around the country.