Snakes alive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 February, 2009, 12:00am

Close your eyes and picture a robot. The image that will probably come to mind is a clunky biped - basically, a human with a square head and stiff gait. Just as we typically think of aliens as variations on man, we also design robots in our image - only with far less finesse.

Enter one of the coolest robots in the realm of automata, the ACM-R5. Despite the lame name, this amphibious robot, developed by Hirose Fukushima Robotics Lab in Japan, inspires fascination among gadget addicts and trend-hunters alike because it departs from the standard clunky look with style.

Called a 'snakebot', the ACM-R5 belongs in the same league as Waseda University's human-sized Flutist No 4 musical robot, which plays Flight of the Bumblebee, and Osaka University's Actroid, the most human-like robot to date.

The ACM-R5 moves with the shimmy of a sidewinder without being confined to land. Fully charged, it can swim underwater for half an hour.

With the elasticity of a real snake, the robot can weave through water, dart left and right, track back on itself, loop the loop and lock into a circle.

Its performance on land is also impressive. Despite a bit of a wobble, it can twist around as it hisses and shines a light, which is embedded in its head, at the viewer.

Up close, though, the ACM-R5's mystique dwindles as the body resembles a toy snake made up of identical segments. However, it is an incredibly complex bit of machinery. Each section has its own motor, battery and micro-processor with which it calculates where it comes in the link chain by counting how many segments separate it from the head.

An advantage of the snake being split into a string of identical components is that each body part can be easily replaced.

The snakebot has immense possibilities, such as searching for victims of earthquakes and other disasters. Innovation consultant Jeff Lindsay predicts many more applications.

Some will be everyday. For example, the ACM-R5 might be used to inspect sewers and help locate and retrieve rubbish in a body of water, simplifying a costly and inefficient process and making recreational areas, such a lakes and swimming pools, safer.

Other applications will be more dramatic. The device could help in underwater exploration, mapping caves, exploring sunken vessels and even operating as a submarine surveillance companion, luring torpedoes away from targets and destroying mines. Consider the remora fish that attach themselves to sharks, the snake robot could become 'the remora of submarines and some boats as well', he says.

Lindsay also notes the ability of real snakes to inspire primal terror. Picture the device as a security feature for a building: just imagine the reaction of a would-be thief upon seeing a slithering group of snakebots patrolling a building.