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Updated 10:00 AM February 20, 2006




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'Snakebot' could revolutionize search and rescue

A remote-controlled cylindrical robot with an onboard power supply could vastly improve recovery efforts in search and rescue missions, and eventually even talk to victims trapped in rubble.
Smaller in size than its predecessor and equipped with on-board battery, the OmniTread OT-4 robot is suited for search-and-rescue missions. (Photo courtesy Mobile Robotics Lab)

The serpentine robot developed at U-M, sometimes called a 'snakebot,' formally is named the OmniTread OT-4 Serpentine Robot. A similar U-M machine (OT-8) received widespread attention last year.

At half the size, the OT-4 is the original snakebot's improved little brother. It was introduced Feb. 12 at the American Nuclear Society's Sharing Solutions for Emergencies and Hazardous Environments conference in Salt Lake City, and earned a Technology Innovation Award from a panel of judges who observed the technology demonstrations.

Like its predecessor, the OT-4 can snake through holes and undulate up stairs and over rocks. The two key differences are that the OT-4 can pass through holes as small as four inches in diameter and on-board battery power makes the cumbersome power cord of its predecessor unnecessary.

"It hampers the mobility of the robot if we have to bring a tether along with it," says Johann Borenstein, a research professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the College of Engineering and leader of the Mobile Robotics Lab. The lithium polymer battery gives one hour of run-time, he says.

The body of the OT-4 robot is comprised of seven box-shaped segments connected by six air-powered joints that move the segments in different directions independently of one another. Each segment is covered on all sides with different textured rolling treads, so when OT-4 flips, it still muscles forward without pause.

The different textured treads are used for a variety of surfaces, Borenstein says.

OT-4's middle segment features runner wheels that allow operators to curl the ends of the body into a U-shape, with only the wheeled segment touching the floor for quick rolling across smooth surfaces.

It takes three people to control the robot by feeding it commands through a device resembling a video game joystick.

During test runs in Borenstein's lab, students order OT-4 to climb a set of wooden stairs. It undulates and flips, much like a human would if attempting to ascend stairs without using arms or legs. The air bellows in the joint provide enough torque for OT-4 to lift three of its front segments at a time, Borenstein says. The operators also can disengage each of the segment tracks individually to save power.

Ultimately, a single operator will steer the snakebot using a video camera in its nose, and computer software in development by another team will take care of steering the segments, Borenstein says. The robot could be outfitted with a speaker to communicate with and comfort trapped victims.

"We know that the urban search and rescue community is very interested in this," he says.

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