July 9, 2013 at 6:01 PM ET
Snake-like robots are hardy, maneuverable and perfect for trips into extremely cramped hazardous environments. Take, for instance, a nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown. A recent test in Austria proved that one such robot currently under development at Carnegie Mellon University would be a huge benefit in such circumstances.
"The biggest benefit of the snake robots is just getting to locations that a mobile robot or conventional robot can't," said Howie Choset, professor at CMU's Robotics Institute, in an interview with NBC News. "This robot can mimic all motions that real snakes exhibit, and we're able to do additional motions like roll like a pinwheel or climb up a pole."
That means it can inch along drainage pipes and vents, and up narrow shafts that would stymie any ordinary robot — be it wheeled, tracked or legged. Researchers tested it out recently at an inactive nuclear power plant in Fischamend Dorf, Austria, and were very impressed.
"We were able to get our snake robot to climb through all sorts of pipes into the core," said Choset, "To see, you know, where we could bring this robot that is currently very difficult to inspect."
"And, heaven forbid, there was another disaster," he continued, "where we may be able to bring this robot, to take samples and readings to better understand the situation inside of a nuclear power plant."
Its ability to traverse confined spaces means less exposure for operators and less need for destructive measures like cutting into the wall of an inaccessible room.
From medical work to rescue operations to humble sewer inspections, the rugged robo-creature is bright and varied. And if it creeps you out to see it climbing a leg or undulating across the room, don't worry: Even the guy in charge isn't immune.
"I'm actually afraid of snakes," he said. "Even today I get a slight visceral reaction."
You can follow the development of the snake robot at CMU's biorobotics page.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.