Carnegie Mellon’s latest snakebot can swim underwater

HUMRS could one day find work inspecting Navy ships.

Carnegie Mellon University

Over the years, Carnegie Mellon University has upgraded its famous snakebot to give it the ability to do things like climb sand dunes and grasp objects. With its latest iteration, you can now add swimming to that list.

Work on the Hardened Underwater Modular Robot Snake (HUMRS) started in July 2020. The university’s robotics lab began by adapting water-resistant modules it had used in the past to allow the robot to operate in less than ideal conditions. They then added a series of turbines and thrusters so that it could move underwater. Work on the project moved quickly, with HUMRS going on its first swim in a CMU pool this past March.

Carnegie Mellon University

The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute — not to be confused with a certain other ARM — helped fund this latest version of the robot snake. The robotics lab envisions organizations like the US Navy using it to inspect ships and submarines while they’re away from a port. As things stand, the crews of warships have few options when their craft is damaged. They either have to wait for a team of divers to come to their location or return to drydock. Either way, that’s something that costs time and money.

"If they can get that information before the ship comes into a home port or a dry dock, that saves weeks or months of time in a maintenance schedule," Matt Fischer, one of the researchers who worked on the project, said. "And in turn, that saves money."

The small size and flexibility of HUMRS also mean it can navigate into areas such as pipes where a more traditional remote submersible would have trouble doing so. Outside of military use, it could also find work inspecting pipes, tanks and offshore rigs.