Robot snake slithers brilliantly after much trial and error

Robot snake slithers brilliantly after much trial and error

Technology News |
By Wisse Hettinga

EPFL STUDENT PROJECT – Intelligent robots – for search and rescue, exploration and surveillance – are a new and challenging field. Unique and versatile, could robot snakes advance the abilities of machines in these fields?

With the objective to undertake a project that would have practical relevance in the real world, this year, a team of EPFL bachelor’s students in the School of Computer and Communication Sciences (IC) undertook a project to make Flipper the robot snake as part of the Making Intelligent Things course.

Flipper is a 1.2-meter-long robot snake crafted from 13 intricately designed 3D-printed pieces. It navigates and explores its surroundings using three distinct modes of motion: Inchworm, Concertina, and Undulation. The Inchworm mode enables precise inch-by-inch movement, the Concertina mode mimics the graceful accordion-like motion and in Undulation mode, Flipper effortlessly slithers with a sinusoidal movement.

“Our project had to be composed of a balanced amount of software and hardware as well as being both complex yet feasible in the eight-week time frame that we had,” explained Leila Sidjanski, a second year Bachelor in Communication Systems student and one of the team’s members. “It was overwhelming at first but we did find a snake project online that inspired us and we had some amazing guidance from a PhD robotics student here at EPFL.”

The team had a solid understanding of algorithms, programming languages and system design, however no direct experience in building robotic systems. They embraced the opportunity to expand their expertise.

“The first thing we started on was the design of the pieces that we were going to print even though we have no background in 3D design. We also had to figure out how the snake would move smoothly and this was very difficult in the code. We had to continually tweak the parameters and it was a lot of trial and error. Finally, another very practical challenge was allocating and timing the tasks between us, because you can’t start testing the snake if the hardware isn’t finished and you can’t start testing its movement if you haven’t connected the cables together,” said Lea Grieder, another member of the team who is studying for a Bachelor in Computer Science.

Professor Christoph Koch teaches the course and explained that making a robot move like a real biological animal is challenging, particularly in the case of snakes whose movement patterns are particularly subtle.

“Real snakes rely on the microstructure of the scales on their bodies to move, something we can’t replicate, so a pattern of movement that looks right might keep the robotic snake wiggling on the spot without any forward movement. The team talked to actual researchers in the field and read scientific publications on the topic and then made some very clever design choices that led to success. They did all this out of their own drive without being instructed to do so.”

The five members of the Flipper the Robot Snake team were: Robin Bochatay, Cherilyn Christen, Lea Grieder, Giovanni Ranieri and Leila Sidjanski. Learn from their trial and error!



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