'Snakebot' Deployed for Urban Search and Rescue

28 September 2017
Matt Travers of the Robotics Institute, center, works with Mexican Red Cross workers to prepare a snake robot to enter a collapsed apartment building. Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University.

After a Mexico City apartment building collapsed in a 7.1-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 19, Carnegie Mellon University researchers deployed a snake-like robot to search for trapped survivors. Although it did not find any survivors, the multi-jointed “snakebot” was able to provide rescue workers with a video feed from two different passes through the rubble.

“The robot performed well and the Mexican Red Cross workers with us said they would like to have a similar tool in the future,” said Matt Travers, systems scientist in CMU’s Robotics Institute and co-director of the Biorobotics Lab, which developed the snakebot.

While urban search-and-rescue has long been considered as a possible application for the snakebot, last week’s deployment marked the first time it was used during an actual disaster. Previously, it had been tested in simulated disaster settings.

“The snake robots developed by the Biorobotics Lab are amazing and unique in their capabilities,” said Andrew Moore, dean of the CMU School of Computer Science. “What happened in Mexico City over the past few days, I believe, is just the beginning of what will someday be a heroic story for robots.”

The team’s modular snake robot is two inches in diameter and 37 inches long, with a body consisting of 16 modules and a head that includes lights and a video camera. It is tethered to a control and power cable. With two half-joints on each module connecting to corresponding half-joints on adjoining modules, the robot body has 16 degrees of freedom; it can assume a number of configurations and move using a variety of gaits. Some are similar to a snake’s natural undulations, allowing it to move through and around pipes. It can also roll.

In addition to search-and-rescue, potential applications include surveillance, industrial plant and archaeological exploration.

For maximum utility in disasters involving collapsed buildings, said Matt Travers, future snakebots should be equipped with gas-leak detection sensors, as well as microphones and speakers to aid in finding and communicating with trapped survivors. Howie Choset, a robotics professor who has led the development of snake robots for more than two decades, said the experience in Mexico City was valuable in helping to identify additional qualities needed to make the robot useful as a search-and-rescue tool.

“This robot performed admirably,” Choset remarked. “But this experience has shown how much work and further development we still have to do.”

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