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‘Snake’ Robot Inspector Slithers Through Pipes

Aug. 5, 2013—Snaking its way through narrow pipes is a new tool that can give inspectors at nuclear power plants a better view of what’s going on inside.

The instrument comes in the form of a “snake robot,” a modular instrument in the shape of a snake: two inches in diameter and 37 inches long and outfitted with a camera on the front end that stays upright—even as the robot twists, turns and rotates. The robot is tethered to a wire that provides power and transmits data to a computer.


Snake robot pipe inspector developed at Carnegie Mellon University

Photo credit: Howie Choset, Carnegie Mellon University


The technology could identify issues that might not turn up in other kinds of inspections—before they become problems.

 “From an energy provider’s perspective, [the robot] makes maintaining nuclear plants a lot more cost-effective,” said Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the lab that developed the snakes.

Choset put his snake prototype into action when he and his team of researchers visited the Zwentendorf nuclear energy facility in May. Zwentendorf, a fully functional Austrian plant that Choset said was “never turned on,” was the perfect place to assess the robot. Within a day of the researchers’ sending the robot into the plant, it had already checked locations that regular inspectors would not be able to see until after an issue had already occurred.

The snake robot would replace the current form of inspection—the borescope—which Choset described as a “wet noodle” that has to be manually pushed through the pipes.  Unlike the borescope, the snake is able to move itself through the bends and curves of the system.

But don’t expect to see it on the market in the near future.

“If we had unlimited funding,” Choset said, “the robots could be built and put into use for nuclear facility inspection with a year or two.” Choset estimated that he would need at least a $5 million investment to progress with the technology.

He said several organizations have approached him about the robot, but lack of funding has hindered development.