New Soft Snake Robot Can Burrow Through Sand and Soil

The snake-inspired soft robot could help gather soil samples and do underground installations with ease.
Fabienne Lang
Snake robotUC Santa Barbara

Many robots have been inspired by animals, reptiles or insects, and are being used across different industries to assist with a plethora of tasks.

One of the inspirational robot reptiles is snakes. These types of robots have already been created for underwater scenarios, such as heading to the ocean floor to fix pipelines, and can look extremely similar to the real deal thanks to ancient Japanese paper craft.

However, burrowing through soil underground has not yet been snake-robots' forte — that's largely been left to worm-like mini robots when collecting underground crop data, for example. 

Now, a team of engineers from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Georgia Tech has developed a snake-like soft robot that uses a range of methods to burrow beneath the earth in soft sand or soil. The team explained the details of its robot in in a study published in Science Advances.

Snaking through soil or sand is a different experience to flying through air or swimming in water, and requires different skills. The team explained its biggest challenges were figuring out how to enable a robot to slink through soil or sand underground. 

The engineers managed to overcome these challenges, paving the way for technology that works in fast, precise and minimally invasive movements underground, as well as laying down the mechanical foundations for new types of robots.

As Daniel Goldman, Dunn Family Professor of Physics at Georgia Tech explained, the "development of a robot with such capabilities can inspire new animal studies as well as point to new phenomena in the physics of granular substrates."

How the team developed its snake robot

Luckily, the team had a head start thanks to its existing soft robot, which is the only section of the design to move — it essentially grows from the tip, just like a vine. Then, a device that blows air downwards and in front of it was added to that growing tip section, so that sand granules or loose soil would be pushed out of the way, and so that the robot didn't naturally rise upwards.

The team also added a wedge to the front of the robot, so that it could more easily carve a path — something it took inspiration from sandfish lizards. 

All in all, the robot is able to forge a path beneath ground, avoiding obstacles, and carving its way easily through soil or sand. The final look of the snake robot might resemble a white sock puppet, but it can do a lot more than just entertain an audience: It could be useful for gathering soil samples or installing underground pipelines, say the engineers.

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