Robotic snake ssslithers through nuclear plant

Carnegie Mellon scientists build snake that can creep where no human can go

A snake has been moving through the pipes and systems of a nuclear power plant near Vienna, Austria.

It may not be as creepy as you think. This particular snake is multi-jointed robotic machine.

robotic snake
Carnegie Mellon University's robotic snake climbs a 1-in. machinery cord at the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant in Austria. (Photo: Carnegie Mellon)

The robot, which is 37 inches long and two inches in diameter, is tethered to a control and power cable. The robot crawled through the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant's steam pipes and connecting vessels as a test of its abilities.

The robotic snake proved it was able to maneuver through multiple bends, slip through open valves and negotiate vessels with multiple openings, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, where it was developed.

That means the robot can inspect areas of the power plant that previously had been unreachable.

"Our robot can go places people can't, particularly in areas of power plants that are radioactively contaminated," said Howie Choset , a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon. "It can go up and around multiple bends, something you can't do with a conventional borescope, a flexible tube that can only be pushed through a pipe like a wet noodle."

The robot, which also has been tested in search-and-rescue environments, is made up of 16 modules, each with two half-joints that connect with corresponding half-joints on adjoining modules. It also has 16 degrees of freedom, enabling it to assume a number of configurations and to move using a variety of gaits.

The robot has a video camera and LED light attached to its head, giving its controllers an image of what it's approaching. The university explained that even though the robotic snake is twisting, turning and rotating as it moves through pipes and over obstacles, the image remains steady because it's automatically corrected to be aligned with gravity.

The university's robotic research team sent the snake into a variety of pipes at the power plant, which was built in the 1970s but never used. Since it doesn't have any radioactive contamination, the plant was ideal for testing the robot.

Nuclear power plants in general have miles of pipes for carrying water and steam. Much of that piping is difficult or nearly impossible to inspect because of its positioning and because radioactivity limits people from being in specific areas.

Kevin Lipkin, senior systems engineer at the Robotics Institute, said in a statement that the longest deployment in a pipe during the Zwentendorf testing was 60 feet.

"We could have gone farther, but we need to figure out how to best manage longer deployments," he said. "We were just being cautious because it was our first time in this plant."

Carnegie Mellon scientists aren't the only ones who have been working on robotic snakes.

In 2008, the Sintef Group, a research company based in Trondheim, Norway, announced that it had designed its own robotic snake. Sintef's robotic snakes, were 1.5-meters long and made of aluminum. They were designed to inspect and clean complicated industrial pipe systems that are typically narrow and inaccessible to humans. These robots also had 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.

This article, Robotic snake ssslithers through nuclear plant, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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