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CMU's 'Snakebot' Deployed In Mexico City Search-And-Rescue Mission

Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science
Roboticist Matt Travers, center, with two Mexican Red Cross workers, prepares to deploy the snakebot into a collapsed apartment building in Mexico City on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. The snakebot is covered by a protective sheath.

After a 7.1 magnitude earthquake devastated Mexico City last week, rescue teams from several countries assisted Mexico in search-and-and rescue efforts. They were joined by a 3-foot-long, 2-inch-wide reptilian robot from Carnegie Mellon University.

The snakebot has been in development for 20 years, but its trip to Mexico City was the first time it was used in a disaster zone. The multi-jointed robot provided rescue workers with a video feed through the rubble of a collapsed apartment building as they looked for survivors.

While the snakebot did not find anyone in the debris, roboticist Matt Travers said the experience was a learning opportunity.

"One of the most valuable things that has come out of this trip was getting the perspective of first responders," Travers said. "They played with it and asked us questions, like does it have this, can it do that, and we saw what they were really interested in." 

Credit Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science
A Carnegie Mellon University snakebot, unsheathed.

Search-and-rescue missions have been considered as a use for the snakebots for years, thanks to it's ability to maneuver tight spaces and travel up to 500 feet with a tether.

Its first disaster situation illuminated the CMU team to aspects that could be incorporated into future iterations of the robot. Travers said the team plans to add sensors to detect gas leaks and a microphone on the robots based on what they learned in Mexico City.

"These robots are somewhat limited in what they can actually do in terms of how they can move and where they can go," Travers said. "But we're leaps and bounds ahead of the next-best alternative because I don't think there actually is one.