All-Terrain Robotics

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

The newest robot to come out of the University of Michigan is anything but your typical droid. The OmniTread, nicknamed “snakebot,” resembles a slinking, slithering monster more than an engineering marvel.

The robot’s five breadbox-sized segments, interconnected via a long drive shaft, are covered in thick rubber tracks that look like a set of serpentine scales. These tracks propel the OmniTread over smooth as well as rough terrain. Pneumatic bellows rest in the four joint cavities, endowing the robot with snakelike flexibility and torque enough to lift its head or tail-innovations that distinguish it from other robots. Historically, wheeled or tracked robots stall on uneven or variant surfaces.

OmniTread is controlled via a joystick and long powercord. But a version capable of limited independent movement is currently in development and is expected in December.

“We first began developing serpentine robots in 1998,” says Johann Borenstein, head of the University of Michigan Mobile Robotics Lab. “The OmniTread model came out of those efforts.” So far, the new robot has performed admirably in tests. It was able to climb an 18-inch curb (more than twice its height), cross a narrow trench, and climb a portion of a wall.

Borenstein foresees three principal areas of application, the first and most immediate being urban search and rescue. OmniTread’s strong, flexible body is ideal for searching out the nooks and crevices of collapsed buildings for potential survivors. Also of great interest both to Borenstein and to the Department of Energy-among the project’s chief benefactors-is the area of industrial inspection, where the robot could be used for scouting potential waste deposit sites for suitability and ensuring that current subterranean waste sites are secure.

Military uses of the snakelike robot are also possible. “You can imagine how our troops in Afghanistan might use the device to investigate caves as well as other dangerous or difficult to reach places,” says Borenstein. You can also imagine NASA expressing interest. Given the robot’s unique capabilities, might we be looking at the next-generation Martian rover? -Patrick Tucker

Source: University of Michigan News, 412 Maynard Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109. Website www.umich.edu/news

Originally published: THE FUTURIST, July-August 2005

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