WASHINGTON (TIP): Inspired by the amazing ability of sidewinder snakes to quickly climb sandy slopes, researchers have created a robot that can climb sand hills better, an advance that may aid search-andrescue operations. Researchers report that sidewinders improve their ability to traverse sandy slopes by simply increasing the amount of their body area in contact with the granular surfaces they’re climbing.

As part of the study, the principles used by the sidewinders to gracefully climb sand dunes were tested using a modular snake robot developed at Carnegie Mellon University. Before the study, the snake robot could use one component of sidewinding motion to move across level ground, but was unable to climb the inclined sand track the way the real snakes could readily ascend. In a real-world application – an archaeological mission in Red Sea caves – sandy inclines were especially challenging to the robot.

However, when the robot was programmed with the unique wave motion discovered in the sidewinders, it was able to climb slopes that had previously been unattainable. “Our initial idea was to use the robot as a physical model to learn what the snakes experienced,” said Daniel Goldman, an associate professor in Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Physics. “By studying the animal and the physical model simultaneously, we learned important general principles that allowed us to not only understand the animal, but also to improve the robot,” said Goldman. The detailed study showed that both horizontal and vertical motion had to be understood and then replicated on the snake-like robot for it to be useful on sloping sand.

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