One of the age-old problems that all cable installers and electricians must deal with is having to install wiring and cable in crazy places. Often cable and electrical wiring is installed in walls, ceilings, underground and in long trays that run the length of a factory ceiling. You almost have to be an acrobat to reach some of these locations. The work can be dangerous and is always laborious.
Robots for cable installers
But in steps technology. Stanford University has invented a robot that acts like a snake and can weave its way through tight, hard-to-reach places. The robot is made of soft thin plastic that folds inside itself. The material is forced out, either hydraulically or pneumatically causing it to grow longer. The scientists who created this robot say that the body remains stationary and only the tip of the tube grows. This prevents it from getting stuck in tight places. Even if the body gets stuck, the tip will continue growing so that work can continue on.
The invention was inspired by vines, such as grape vines, that grow and cover walls and trellises. As researchers at Stanford continue to refine this prototype, they plan to make it with more durable material that cannot be damaged from puncturing or from fire. At the moment, the robotic snake can handle some pretty tough obstacles. For instance, it was able to move under a heavy wooden chest and grow along the floor to the other side of the chest, lifting it off the floor.
It has also been tested to see whether it can grow inside pipes, over flypaper, nails, across sticky glue, and up an ice wall. The robot performed well in all these challenges. Researchers believe this invention could revolutionize the construction industry where cable installers must often climb into dangerous places in order to install conduit, wiring and cable. But there are also a number of other applications being explored.
Benefits for cable installers and emergency workers
The team at Stanford believes that their robotic snake could be used for search and rescue operations. It could take water to people trapped underground or under rubble from a building explosion. It could be used to go down into mines and bring light, water, oxygen or messages to trapped miners. The snake can be programmed to follow a very complex path.
One of the main challenges for this new invention has been its ability to carry a camera and show users exactly where it’s going and what is there. Camera imagery must be processed at the same rate it is produced. The robotic snake moves too quickly at times to do this. The frame rate is not adequate to keep up. But scientists are working on this problem and believe they will soon have a good solution. This would allow them to use the snake to investigate underground fissures or other dangerous areas where workers would not be able to go.
Moving forward, the researchers would like to build a much larger version of the snake and even a much smaller version so that it could be used in a wider range of applications. They are also experimenting with tough fabrics such as Kevlar so that it could be used to put out fires in a closed room.
Advancements in medical field
They’ve already built a version that is only 1.8 mm thick for advanced medical procedures. Instead of using the traditional surgical robots such as the Da Vinci system, this new invention can be used for both diagnosis and surgical procedures. Though medical robots have been proven to aid doctors, they are extremely expensive to purchase and maintain. The new robotic snake will be a much more cost-effective tool for doctors.
Since the robotic snake is made of inexpensive materials, it might work for all types of applications that researchers have not even considered. It will definitely improve working conditions for cable installers, construction workers or anyone who has to crawl around in tight places.