British engineers have developed a snake-like industrial robot that can be used to inspect and clean giant construction machines such as tunnel borers.

The Series II – X125 system is an industrial robot developed by UK engineering firm OC Robotics that is currently being used to help maintain the huge tunnel boring machines employed by a port construction project in Miami.

Series II-X125 system

Series II-X125 system

The robot consists of a series of short, stiff tubes connected by cables and actuators to form a 2.2 metres long, snake-like appendage. This serpentine arm is controlled by a set of motors and actuators at the base of the robot that manipulate each of the joints by means of the attached cables.

The robot is capable of even greater agility and range of motion than a human limb, possessing an arm bend of over 225 degrees and moving with all the lithe precision of a real-life snake. This enables it to enter environments or spaces that are either hazardous or impossible for human maintenance workers to access directly – negotiating difficult pathways, moving around obstacles, in order to reach the exact position where it’s required.

The uncanny movement of the robot arm is the result of more than just advanced hardware, however, making use of innovative software to achieve its serpentine levels of dexterity.

The device employs a “nose-following algorithm,” which compels the rest of the body to follow the precise path of the head as it advances. This means that if the head winds around a given obstacle or turns a particular bend, the rest of its body will do exactly the same. It is also capable of replicating its movements in reverse, enabling it to retract along the same path it entered.

It is this propensity which makes the robot capable of moving successfully through pipelines or other confined spaces, making it ideal for cleaning large and complex forms of construction machinery such as tunnel borers.

Its supple, snake-like flexibility also means the robotic limb lacks protruding elbows that can potentially catch on the surrounding environment and cause damage to sensitive equipment.

The system deployed for the purpose of cleaning tunnel borers in Miami delivers a six-kilogram payload and comes equipped with a high pressure water jet and inspection camera, enabling human operators to scour the intricate internal workings of the giant construction machines remotely.

The device can also be equipped with a variety of other tools, however, such as cutting torches or welders, in order to fulfil a range of other functions.

The sheer agility of the robot’s movements and its variable functionality gives it tremendous potential for deployment in Australia’s construction sector – particularly given the nature of certain large-scale projects coming online that involve highly challenging work environments.

The robot would prove ideal for operation in the complex and hard-to-reach ventilation systems of Sydney’s nine-kilometre long NorthConnex tunnel for which experts have advocated a transverse ventilation installation, as well as the city’s existing tunnel systems with longitudinal ventilation systems, such as the M5 tunnel, and the Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels.

It could also have tremendous applications for maintenance and repair work in Australia’s resources sector – particularly underground mining environments, as well as the highly complex, large-scale floating LNG  facilities that will be used to exploit deposits in the country’s offshore gas fields.