Researchers use snake robot to help understand sidewinder movements

10 Oct 2014

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Scientists observing sidewinder rattlesnakes have used a robot to aid their research into how the reptiles traverse sandy hills and dunes.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Oregon State University and Zoo Atlanta constructed an adjustable dune for the study, which was filled with sand from the Arizona desert.

By observing real sidewinder snakes in the enclosure, they discovered the creatures improve their ability to climb slopes by flattening themselves to increase the amount of their body area in contact with the surface.

The team's findings were then applied to a pre-existing robot snake. Prior to the study, the machine could use sidewinding movements to move across level ground but couldn't climb sandy hills. But when programmed with the unique wave motion discovered by researchers, it managed to traverse slopes. 

"Our initial idea was to use the robot as a physical model to learn what the snakes experienced," explained Daniel Goldman, an associate professor in Georgia Tech's School of Physics via the Carnegie Mellon website.

"By studying the animal and the physical model simultaneously, we learned important general principles that allowed us to not only understand the animal, but also to improve the robot."

The study has been outlined in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's academic journal Science, as well as video posted to YouTube.

Real-world application

As well as gaining long-sought insights into the rattlesnakes, the team's research will greatly help the development of the robot as it's applied to real-world scenarios.

"If a robot gets stuck in the sand, that's a problem, especially if that sand happens to be on another planet," said Joe Mendelson, director of research at Zoo Atlanta.

"Sidewinders never get stuck in the sand, so they are helping us create robots that can avoid getting stuck in the sand. These venomous snakes are offering something to humanity."

The robot, developed by Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics Howie Choset, is two inches in diameter and 37 inches long, with a body made up of 16 joints.

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Snake image via Shutterstock

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Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com