Science Buzz

Snake robots — from surgery to search ‘n’ rescue

Snakebots coiled around a tree branch

Snakebots, modular robots that look like snakes, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, can twist in many directions and move — slithering, swimming — like their namesake animal.

Built by roboticist Howie Choset, a typical snake robot consists of metal containers linked together, each with a motor and electronic parts inside. The robots have another special feature: they can manoeuvre into tight spaces, a feat that could help save lives. For example, robotic snakes could help find people trapped in collapsed buildings after earthquakes. With a camera-equipped snakebot, rescue workers could search for people in the rubble from a safe distance.

Snakebots also show promise in surgeries, acting as surgical tools that could be navigated through a small incision, moving around corners and behind organs. This could minimize physical trauma, speed up a patient’s recovery and leave minimal scarring. A company called Medrobotics in Boston is now adapting the technology for surgeries.
Choset is exploring the possibility of sending snakebots into archaeological sites that are too small or dangerous to enter. A robot equipped with a camera could show scientists what is inside and perhaps even retrieve artefacts.