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Lizard-inspired robot can swim through granular material

By

May 10, 2011

Inspired by the sandfish lizard, a new snake-like robot is being designed to burrow throug...

Inspired by the sandfish lizard, a new snake-like robot is being designed to burrow through debris to reach earthquake victims (All images courtesy Georgia Tech)

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When the sandfish lizard wishes to escape predators, it can actually dive beneath the surface of the sand, and then swim through it. Inspired by the sandfish, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have created an undulating robot that can likewise swim through a granular medium. While that medium has so far consisted of quarter-inch plastic balls in a lab setting, the team hopes that their robot – or one of its descendants – could someday be used to tunnel through debris to rescue earthquake victims.

The snake-like robot is composed of seven connected segments (each powered by a servo motor), encased in a latex sock which is then wrapped in a spandex swimsuit. At the front of the device is a wedge-shaped burrowing head, which closely resembles that of the lizard. Getting the angle of that head right took some research, however.

The sandfish itself has a doorstop-like head that forms a downward angle of 140 degrees with the horizontal plane. When the Georgia Tech team experimented with a robot head that sat at 155 degrees, the robot proceeded to swim down through the medium. When the tip of that head was then raised from 0 to 7 degrees, the robot's downward trajectory decreased until it became level. Once that tip was pointed above 7 degrees, the submerged robot proceeded to swim up out of the plastic balls.

The different nose angles tried on the robot head (top), and the different leading angles ...

Results of the tests with the robot matched those obtained by dragging blocks of wood, cut to different angles, through the medium. In the time since those tests were conducted, the robot has been equipped with an adjustable head, that can change its angle to move the robot up or down. The scientists are interested in seeing if the sandfish also changes the orientation of its head to steer itself through the sand.

They are now planning on testing their robot in material similar to that found at disaster sites.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
2 Comments

Reminds me of the movie Screamers.

Alex Akesson
11th May, 2011 @ 06:49 am PDT

reminds me of the movie Tremors.

DmanEfest
13th May, 2011 @ 09:22 am PDT
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