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Pits of Robotic Sea Snakes Will Lurk at Offshore Drilling Sites

Dear god.
Image: YouTube/Screenshot

Robotic engineers have built themselves a mighty fine menagerie.

As we've written about here before, nature is popular inspiration for researchers looking to develop new types of mechanical forms, and there's seemingly no animal too biologically complex for the field of biomimetics.

Now, engineers at the technology companies Eelume and Kongsberg Maritime have partnered with oil and gas corporation Statoil to mechanize the formidable sea snake.


GIF: YouTube

Teams of researchers had been tinkering away at the robotic sea snake for more than 10 years before finally producing something viable for its intended purpose: underwater exploration.

The sleek little bot will be deployed for subsea inspections and repair operations on oil drilling machinery, according to Kongsberg Maritime. Pits of robotic sea snakes will be permanently installed at offshore drilling sites, thus eliminating the need for large, expensive maintenance ROVs—remotely operated underwater vehicles capable of performing various tasks.

"Eelume is a good example of how new technology and innovation contributes to cost reduction. Instead of using large and expensive vessels for small jobs, we now introduce a flexible robot acting as a self going janitor on the seabed," Statoil's Chief technology officer Elisabeth Birkeland Kvalheim said in a statement.

The underwater robot is able to swim both by itself and with the help of thrusters, according to a video made by the technology firm NTNU. Its flexible, articulated "body" allows the sea snake to be configured for different tasks and easily navigate complex areas of machinery.

Sea snake robots aren't new, however. In 2014, mechanical engineering students at the University of Adelaide constructed a similar bot that would help biologists study marine life without having to use noisy and invasive ROVs.

"Because the robot design mimics the sea snake we get this lovely feedback loop – the biology informs the design of the robot, which not only records new observations of the sea snakes but generates new information about the link between form and function," University of Adelaide researcher told National Geographic.

Terrestrial snakes, such as the sidewinder rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes) have also inspired engineers to tackle new methods of locomotion. Researcher Howie Choset at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University developed a limbless bot that relied on internal movements and joint angles to shimmy up and down three dimensional terrains. Choset hopes his robot can be used to explore archaeological sites and retrieve hard-to-reach artifacts.

Compared to the other uses of serpentine robotics, Statoil's bot seems mildly less cool. While it's neat that engineers were able to translate the sea snake's complicated morphology into working machinery, it's a bit of a bummer that its ultimate use will be helping an oil corporation plow the seafloor and disrupt the habitat of actual living, breathing ocean creatures.