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MIT Technology Review

This Laser-Toting Tentacle Carves Up Old Nuclear Hardware

A remotely controlled writhing robotic arm is being used to cut through thick metal in hostile environments.

November 28, 2016

Say hello to the Laser Snake.

As well as looking like something from a nightmare, according to its makers it’s also the world’s first device to be used to remotely laser-cut equipment inside a nuclear power facility.

Developed by the U.K.-based company OC Robotics, the machine uses a series of wire ropes that run along the length of its arm to articulate its joints. Carefully adjusting tension in each of the cables enables it to twist itself through tight spaces and negotiate awkward geometries.

The robotic arm itself is actually hollow, which allows OC Robotics to install tools at its end—in this case, for laser cutting. The arm currently holds a five-kilowatt laser, which is able to cut through thick plates of steel in both air and water.

Its most recent test took place in the Sellafield nuclear power plant, in the north of England, which is currently being decommissioned. There, it was used to slice up a thick dissolver vessel, which had previously formed part of the core nuclear reactor hardware.

It’s by no means the first robot designed to work in hostile environments. The Atlas robot, made by Boston Dynamics, was designed as a humanoid machine that could carry out tasks in dangerous locations. Toshiba even built a submersible robot designed specifically to help repair the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

These kinds of robots all serve to remove humans from undue risk. And, in the case of Laser Snake, perhaps even keep you awake at night.

(Read more: OC Robotics, “Agile Robots,” “The Underwater Robot That Will Repair Fukushima”)