Scandinavian scientists designing robotic snakes

With the ability to climb vertically, intelligent robots could inspect oil and water pipelines

People are becoming accustomed to robots in space, robotic vacuum cleaners and even the notion of robotic friends and spouses. But robotic snakes?

It's true. The Sintef Group, a research company based in Trondheim, Norway, announced that it's designing a robot based on — well, snakes.

The 1.5-meter long robots, which are made of aluminium, are being designed to inspect and clean complicated industrial pipe systems that are typically narrow and inaccessible to humans. The intelligent robots have multiple joints to enable them to twist vertically and climb up through pipe systems to locate leaks in water systems, inspect oil and gas pipelines and clean ventilation systems.

"Combined with our algorithms, the robot will be able to navigate and move forward on its own," said Jens Thielemann, a project manager at Sintef, in a statement. "The robot knows when a left or right turn is approaching and also contains a built-in path description detailing what tasks it should carry out in different situations."

Sintef noted in a report that the company is working on a prototype of a robot with a long, narrow body. With 10 to 11 joints, each with a corresponding set of plastic wheels, the robots are being designed to climb and navigate intersections and be constantly aware of its location in pipes that can be as small as 20 centimetres in diameter.

The robot is designed to have a camera attached and move around the pipe following a pre-programmed map. Thielemann noted in the report that they are working on using the vision system to help the robot navigate itself through the maze of pipes.

"The robot will function as a train when operating horizontally," he added. "Such robots already exist, but we want to develop a robot that can climb too."

When the robot enters a vertical pipe, Sintef reports that it lifts its head and meets the pipe wall. It then can move sideways with its abdomen against the pipe and twist itself upwards. It also has the option of being able to attach itself to the pipe wall and then roll upward.

The company hopes to have a working prototype ready for testing by the end of the year.

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