Until now, sandy surfaces have been the Achilles heel for snake robots. A research team led by Georgia Tech looked at what they were mimicking for the answer.

The researchers took real sidewinder rattlesnakes, and their robotic one, across sandy slopes. What they found gives them a new look at how the sidewinder rattlesnake is able to call the deserts of the Southwestern United States home. It’ll also help improve their existing snake robot to move across challenging, sandy terrain.

“We realized that the sidewinder snakes use a template for climbing on sand, two orthogonal waves that they can control independently,” said Hamid Marvi, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon who conducted the experiments while he was a graduate student in the laboratory of David Hu, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Mechanical Engineering.

“We used the snake robot to systematically study the failure modes in sidewinding. We learned there are three different failure regimes, which we can avoid by carefully adjusting the aspect ratio of the two waves, thus controlling the area of the body in contact with the sand.”

Here’s the LA Times explaining it in layman terms. “Its zigzagging body sidles across hot deserts, using the “zig” segments of its curving body for purchase as it lifts up the “zag” segments.”

Snake robots are particularly well suited for search and rescue operations. Especially in urban areas. With no wheels or tires, you don’t have to worry about the robot getting stuck. Plus, it’s small size makes it easy to get into tight areas.

With improvements being made to travel on sandy surfaces, snake robot uses could expand past Earth. That would have come in handy earlier this year when Mars rover Curiosity had to take a detour around a sandy area after nearly getting stuck.

You can read the full paper at the journal Science.

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