Serpentine Robots Inch Ahead

Slinky? OmniTread walks down stairs.

Snakelike robots could one day be slithering around waste disposal sites to check for leaking drums, or inching through building wreckage with a camera and microphone to probe for survivors.

The prototype pictured, dubbed OmniTread, was built over the past few years by roboticist Johann Borenstein of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his colleagues. The 1.2-meter-long machine crawls with treads that cover 80% of its surface and flexes powerfully, thanks to four pneumatic joints. In the March issue of Industrial Robot, the team describes the results of tests on various terrains. OmniTread can pass through or around obstructions that most other robots cannot, says Borenstein.

OmniTread "climbs stairs pretty well; it crosses gaps pretty well," says Wendell Sykes of Context Systems in Carlisle, Massachusetts, who consults on robotics for government agencies. Borenstein is "probably about a year ahead of everyone else."

The Michigan researchers are now working on a smaller-diameter version of OmniTread that will hold enough batteries and compressed gas to operate untethered for up to an hour.

Related sites
Borenstein's homepage
Abstract of study
Watch OmniTread in action