Howie Choset, engineer and robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon, is part of a team developing "snakebots" with funding from the US Navy's Office of Naval Research. Potential applications for the serpentine robots range from engine maintenance to bomb disarming to disaster rescue. Snip from National Geographic story:
Snake-like robots already exist in rudimentary forms. But Choset's creations push the envelope. Small and very strong by design, Choset's snakebots measure just five centimeters (two inches) in diameter. The use of beveled gears around their circumference, allows the serpentine robots many more degrees of movement than conventional robots–including the ability to move efficiently in three-dimensional space. Choset's machines use complex mathematical algorithms that enable them to autonomously sense and respond to obstacles and variations they encounter while navigating across landscapes.
Living snakes move by cyclic forms of locomotion, or "gaits." Adapting these gaits to the mechanical snake enables it to maneuver effectively through three-dimensional terrain. Choset's current snakebot prototype is constructed from many separate pieces connected with hinges. Eventually, the device will look much like a real snake, with a smooth surface "skin" possibly made of piezoelectric polymer materials that hold special electrical properties. This skin would help to propel the snakebot by expanding and contracting as it is alternately charged with electric current. The resulting motion, which would resemble that of a real snake, would help the snakebot move safely in cluttered spaces.