News | Jun 13, 2018

This drone has the smelliest job

The pipe snake was designed to infiltrate enemy bunkers by crawling up the sewer, but the Air Force thinks it has non-military potential

A pair of creative Air Force Academy cadets, in a mechanical engineering class, invented two novel ways to defeat hard and deeply buried military targets.

Typically the Air Force uses air-dropped munitions, i.e., bunker busters, to destroy underground targets.

But for their senior project, cadets David Carte and Kyle Fitle came up with two new tools for U.S. Special Forces to quietly strike buried facilities, according to their summary report.

The first idea was to stick tiny pellets filled with explosives or poison gas onto people who would unknowingly carry them into the bunkers. But their second idea was to build a “pipe snake” drone, and it won them a U.S. patent.

Illustration of the pipe snake. (Air Force Academy)

The pipe snake is an adaptation of an industrial pipeline inspection robot that can autonomously crawl into an enemy’s underground facility through the sewer.

“The pipe snake depends on the assumption that the (bunker) has some type of pipe system for sewage and waste removal,” the cadets wrote.

Surging wastewater (whenever the toilets are flushed) was identified as a problem. Wheeled robots with large profiles have trouble negotiating tight corners. So, the cadets were challenged to come up with a design that had lower drag, could navigate tight turns, adapt to changing pipe sizes, and overcome obstacles, like chain link fencing.

Instead of using wheels, they built a prototype that uses six thin prongs mounted on a flexible, two-segment body. A set of three prongs are positioned in the front, another set of three in the rear. The rear legs hold the robot in place as it extends the front legs. When the front prongs grab the pipe, the rear legs relax and slide up to the front, allowing the drone to travel forward. The feet also use a self-braking design that grips the pipe walls harder as the robot is pushed backward.

“Although disgusting to think about, the pipe snake must be able to hold its ground against a barrage of water and waste!” the cadets said.

Once inside a building, the pipe snake could conduct a variety of tasks, including the delivery of a bomb or the gathering of intelligence.

“One option for receiving information gathered by the pipe snake consists of the ability to drop small relay signal pucks that will transmit data along the course the pipe snake has passed and eventually to U.S. military operators,” the project summary reads.

TechLink, the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary, is seeking businesses interested in licensing the patent rights and developing the pipe snake into a commercially-available product adapted for civilian or military customers.

Its low profile and ability to navigate pipes of varying diameter make the pipe snake attractive for inspecting pipes that traditional robots can’t navigate. In addition to inspections, the Air Force sees a potential for the robotic pipe crawler being used by emergency personnel to communicate with people trapped in collapsed buildings, mine shafts, or underground facilities.

“These talented Air Force engineers have prototyped a design that could do more than what was intended,” said Dr. Brian Metzger, senior technology manager at TechLink. “Patent licenses are available to companies that can develop it into a product, whether it’s saving the lives of miners trapped in a tunnel, finding children in a collapsed building, or inspecting pipes.”

Headshot Image of Brian Metzger, PhD, CLP

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