Hybrid robot merges flier with two snakelike machines

Gadget could one day serve on search-and-rescue missions

three-robot hybrid

AIR AND LAND  A three-robot hybrid uses two wheeled, bent snakebots and a four-propeller helicopter to travel by land or air, individually or as a team.

Modular Robotics Lab/Univ. of Pennsylvania

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CHICAGO­ —“Snakes on a plane” might be a good strategy for building rescue robots.

Pairing two snakelike robots with a flying one has let researchers combine the exploring skills of small, ground-based bots with the swift moves of an aerial machine.

Engineers have created search-and-rescue robots before — tanklike machines with heavy-duty treads — but most of these bots muscle over rough terrain with brute force. They can disturb damaged areas and have trouble reaching nooks and crannies within the wreckage.

Agile snakebots can burrow through rubble, but they can get stuck, said Stella Latscha, a University of Pennsylvania mechanical engineer now at SpaceX in Hawthorne, Calif. “If a person has to run out and move them that really defeats the purpose.” So she and colleagues designed a four-propeller helicopter that can airlift wheeled snakebots out of tight spots.

The robot trio speeds over flat terrain as a team, or splits up to patrol the air and the ground separately. Using an Xbox controller, Latscha and colleagues drove snakebots through a 4-inch pipe and even up stairs.

For faster vertical trips, the rolling bots use magnets to snap into the helicopter, which can fly carrying one snakebot for about five minutes, the researchers reported September 16 at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. 

TEAMING UP  A four-propeller helicopter can carry a wheeled snakelike robot through the air, or connect with two snakebots to speed over flat terrain. On their own, the snakebots can squeeze through a 4-inch tube, drive over gravel and climb stairs. The helicopter can also quickly bring a bot up a flight of stairs.

Credit: Modular Robotics Lab/Univ. of Pennsylvania

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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