British Snake-arm Robots Sneak into Nuclear Plants and Undersea Tunnels



Snake attack alert!  The Bristol-based OC Robotics, specialized in “robots for confined spaces," recently launched the latest model of its army of snake-arm robots, Series II - X125 system.  This uncanny-looking robot is more agile than before, able to execute movements more accurately, and is both programmable and manually controllable to follow and retract along complex, winding paths mid-air.





This new and improved snake-arm robot is 2.2 meters in length with an arm bend of over 225 degrees and a payload of 6 kilograms.  Its flexible tip can be fitted with either an inspection camera, sensors, grippers, a driller, or a high-pressure water jet nozzle, along with a LED light source to better aid exploration in the dark.  Such customization allows Series II - X125 to sneak inside confined spaces and tunnels too cramped or hazardous to risk human entry, performing visual inspection, cleaning, drilling, or even taking fragile samples in liquid, powder, or flaky forms.


According to OC Robotics’s reply on one of their official demo videos, you can only find motors and electronics inside the actuator pack within the "base” of all their snake-arm robots.  A set of steel cables threads through each of the “snake” section to make it entirely mechanical and cable-actuated, which enables the snake-arm to remain light in weight and achieve greater length in design.






OC Robotics has been focusing on developing purpose-built snake-arm robots with 14 to 20 degrees of freedom (DoFs) since it was founded in 1997.  These robots operate in various aerospace, military, industrial, construction, and nuclear sites to carry out missions in low-access areas, such as assisting in aircraft assembly or space shuttle maintenance.


During the construction process of the Port Miami Tunnel, Florida, a 1,300-meter long undersea tunnel just opened to traffic in August 2014, one of OC Robotics's snake-arm robots was sent into the depth of the harsh environment to inspect and cleanse the cutting head of a tunnel boring machine (TBM).  Beneath the Port of Miami, the construction site was extremely high in temperature and humidity, with a pressure of as high as 3.5 to 12 bar (1 bar equals to 100 kPa), unbearable to human body.  With the aid of the robot, however, operators can control and monitor the progress onscreen from the safety of their outside workstations.





As of now, for humanitarian and health concerns, these snake-arm robots are beginning to take part in missions within high radiation areas, such as routine maintenance of nuclear plants or the disposal of nuclear waste from retired plants.  On the other hand, both the U.K. Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Department of Defense have been seeking security or military applications of such technology, such as using a snake-arm robot fitted with cameras to gain access into places where hostages are potentially being held, checking out suspicious vehicles that might be set up with improvised explosive devices (IED), or dragging vehicles or equipment from landmine zones to safety.


Despite their sinister appearances, these agile robotic “snakes” are actually accomplishing important work—while potentially saving invaluable human lives from unnecessary harm.




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