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Snake robots! Slithering machines could aid search-and-rescue efforts

robot-snake

The Carnegie Mellon snake robot has finally mastered the art of slithering up a sandy slope. (Nico Zevallos and Chaohui Gong)

One snake’s ability to shimmy up slippery sand dunes could inspire new technologies for robots that could perform search and rescue missions, carry out inspections of hazardous wastes and even explore ancient pyramids.

A new study looked at the North American desert-dwelling sidewinder rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes), a creature better known for its venomous bite than its graceful movements. But this snake can climb up sandy slopes without sliding back down to the bottom a feat that few snake species can accomplish.

Snakelike, or limbless, robots are intriguing to scientists for several reasons. First, their lack of legs, wheels or tracks means they don’t often get stuck in ruts or held up by bumps in their path. They could also be used to access areas that other bots can’t get to, or to explore places that aren’t safe for humans. [Biomimicry: 7 Clever Technologies Inspired by Nature]

The sidewinder shimmy

To get a closer look at their live study subjects, the researchers headed to Zoo Atlanta, where they were able to examine six sidewinder rattlesnakes. They tested the snakes on a specially designed inclined table covered with loosely packed sand.

Fifty-four trials were conducted, with each of the six snakes slithering up the sandy table nine times, three times each at varying degrees of steepness. As the snakes worked their way up the makeshift sand dune, high-speed cameras tracked their movements, taking note of exactly where their bodies came into contact with the sand as they moved upward.

The researchers found that sidewinder snakes live up to their name. The slithery creatures moved up the sandy incline in a sideways motion, with their heads pointing toward the top of the incline and the rest of their bodies moving horizontally up the slope. The researchers then looked more carefully at how sidewinders carry out these complex movements.

“The snakes tended to increase the amount of body in contact with the surface at any instant in time when they were sidewinding up the slope and the incline angle increased,” said Daniel Goldman, co-author of the study and an associate professor of biomechanics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Specifically, the snakes doubled the amount of their bodies touching the sand when navigating the slope, he added.

And the parts of the snake’s body that were touching the sand during the ascent never slipped back down the slope because the creature applied the right amount of force in its movements, keeping the sand under it from sliding, Goldman told Live Science.

Snake robots

To put their newfound understanding of sidewinding to good use, Goldman and his colleagues got in touch with Howie Choset, a professor at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Choset, who has been developing limbless robots for years, already developed a snakelike bot that performs well both in the lab and in real-life situations. However, his slithering machine has run into one particular problem during field tests.

“These guys have been making a robot sidewind for years over a wide diversity of substrates, but they had a lot of trouble on sandy slopes,” Goldman said.

To get the robot moving over sandy dunes, the researchers applied what they now know about the sidewinding rattlesnake’s patterns of movement. They programmed the robot so that more of its body would come into contact with the ground as it slides up the slope. They also applied what they had learned about force, which enables the robot to move its weight in such a way that it keeps moving upward over the sand without rolling back down the slope.

Now that Choset’s snake robot can move over tough terrain, it’ll be better equipped to handle the tasks that it was built to tackle.

“Since these robots have a narrow cross section and they’re relatively smooth, they can fit into places that people and machinery can’t otherwise access,” Choset told Live Science.

For example, these limbless robots could be used during search-and-rescue missions, since the slithery machines can crawl into a collapsed building and search for people trapped inside without disturbing the compromised structure. The snake bot could also be sent into containers that may hold dangerous substances, such as nuclear waste, to take samples and report back to hazmat specialists.

Choset also said these robotic sidewinding abilities could come in handy on archaeological sites. For instance, the robots could one day be used to explore the insides of pyramids or tombs, he said.

The research represents a key collaboration between biologists and roboticists, said Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorobotics Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL), who was not involved in the new study.

“I think its a very exciting project which managed to contribute to the two objectives of biorobotics,” Ijspeert told Live Science.

“On one hand, they took inspiration from biology to design better control methods for the robot,” Ijspeert said. “By looking at how sidewinding takes place in a snake, especially with slopes, they found out the strategy that the animal uses and, when they tested it on the robot, it could really improve the climbing capabilities of the robot.”

The researchers also achieved the second goal of biorobotics, he said, which is to use a robot as a scientific tool. By testing the different speeds at which the robotic snake could successfully climb up the sand, the researchers were able to pinpoint exactly how fast real snakes make their way up these slippery slopes.

“It’s a nice example of how robots can help in biology and how biology can help in robotics.”

The study was published online Oct. 9 in the journal Science.

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Coffee Genome Reveals Why Your Java Smells So Good

 

 

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Teenager Designs Better Nuclear Plant

Meet the teenager who designed a safer nuclear power plant

By Elizabeth Palermo

Published May 15, 2013

TechNewsDaily

  • tayler-wilson-ted

    Taylor Wilson (TED)

Do nuclear power plants need a redesign? Critics of nuclear energy seem to think so, and so does nuclear energy advocate, Taylor Wilson. A physics wunderkind, Wilson became the youngest person to ever create fusion at age 14. And since graduating from high school last year, he’s devoted himself to finding innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

The now nineteen-year-old Wilson recently spoke to a TED audience about his design for a small, modular fission reactor that is both less expensive and much safer to operate than today’s nuclear reactors.

Its assembly-line construction, 30-year fuel life and low usage cost make Wilson’s reactor an ideal source of electricity for both developing nations and space explorers, according to the young scientist.

To get an idea of how today’s nuclear reactors work, Wilson first explained to his listeners at TED how electricity is produced using a steam turbine. In a steam turbine system, water boils and turns to steam, which turns the turbine and creates electricity.

Nuclear fission, Wilson said, is really just a fancy tool for getting the water in a steam turbine system to boil quickly and steadily.

Today’s nuclear power plants produce steam for their turbines using pressurized-water reactors — or big pots of water under high pressure — which are heated up with help from uranium dioxide fuel rods encased in zirconium. These rods control and maintain the nuclear fission reaction.

When nuclear power was first used to heat water in a turbine system, it was a big advancement in existing technology. But Wilson said his idea for a redesign stemmed from the suspicion that it wasn’t really the best way to do it.

“Is fission kind of played out, or is there something left to innovate here?” Wilson said he asked himself. “And I realized that I had hit upon something that I think has this huge potential to change the world.”

Instead of finding a new way to boil water, Wilson’s compact, molten salt reactor found a way to heat up gas. That is, really heat it up.

Wilson’s fission reactor operates at 600 to 700 degrees Celsius. And because the laws of thermodynamics say that high temperatures lead to high efficiencies, this reactor is 45 to 50 percent efficient.

Traditional steam turbine systems are only 30 to 35 percent efficient because their reactors run at low temperatures of about 200 to 300 degrees Celsius.

And Wilson’s reactor isn’t just hot, it’s also powerful. Despite its small size, the reactor generates between 50 and 100 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power anywhere from 25,000 to 100,000 homes, according to Wilson.

Another innovative component of Wilson’s take on nuclear fission is its source of fuel. The molten salt reactor runs off of “down-blended weapons pits.” In other words, all the highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium collecting dust since the Cold War could be put to use for peaceful purposes.

And unlike traditional nuclear power plants, Wilson’s miniature power plants would be buried below ground, making them a boon for security advocates.

According to Wilson, his reactor only needs to be refueled every 30 years, compared to the 18-month fuel cycle of most power plants. This means they can be sealed up underground for a long time, decreasing the risk of proliferation.

Wilson’s reactor is also less prone to proliferation because it doesn’t operate at high pressure like today’s pressurized-water reactors or use ceramic control rods, which release hydrogen when heated and lead to explosions during nuclear power plant accidents, like the one at Fukushima in 2011.

In the event of an accident in one of Wilson’s reactors, the fuel from the core would drain into a “sub-critical” setting- or tank- underneath the reactor, which neutralizes the reaction. The worst that could happen, according to Wilson, is that the reactor is destroyed.

“But we’re not going to contaminate large quantities of land,” said Wilson. “So I really think that in the, say, 20 years it’s going to take us to get fusion and make fusion a reality, this could be the source of energy that provides carbon-free electricity.”

Wilson said his idea could help combat climate change, bring affordable power to the developing world and power rockets to explore space.

“There’s something really poetic about using nuclear power to propel us to the stars,” Wilson said, “Because the stars are giant fusion reactors. They’re giant nuclear cauldrons in the sky … there’s something poetic about perfecting nuclear fission and using it as a future source of innovative energy.”

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2013/05/15/teenager-designs-safer-nuclear-power-plants/?intcmp=features#ixzz2TTvuJwJc

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