Snake-Catching Robot

Catching a massive, venomous snake is dangerous business. But what if there was a safe way to capture the creature from a safe distance?

Robots are often used for jobs that are too dangerous for humans, such as defusing bombs, capping oil wells deep down in the ocean, even exploring other planets. But can a robot take over the potentially deadly job of catching snakes?

The Snakebot will have to operate in the darkness and function in tiny, confined spaces. It’ll certainly need a camera. Perhaps some lights, too. It should be able to investigate both high and low places. And finally, the Snakebot’s operator must have full control of the robot while remaining out of harm’s way.

In tonight’s Dangerous Encounters episode, snake expert Brady Barr will tangle with deadly serpents and study state-of-the-art robots to develop the snakebot.

So, what’s it take to transport, manipulate and operate the Snakebot? What will happen when it’s finally put to the test?

Thomas VanDoren, Vice President of HDT Engineering Services, shares his experiences with Nat Geo Inside Wild, below!


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Day 1: Sunday, October 24
Dan Wahl, Donnie Williams, the Snakebot and I arrived in Johannesburg fairly incoherent from the 15 hr plane flight from Atlanta. (I guess I am not sure if the Snakebot was incoherent or not.) We were happy that our luggage began arriving, but distressed that everything except the Snakebot’s manipulator arm arrived.  After waiting an hour we learned from an airline employee that a rifle case like we used for the arm might be impounded by the airport police, so we made our way to the police station where we found the arm, to our great relief.

Day 2: Monday, October 25

Our driver got a speeding ticket on the way to Marble Hall, but he was happier than the guy in the Mazda that got caught in TWO speed traps.
Bush Fellows Lodge is amazing. Two baby lions (see photo, which includes a rather amazing Irish Wolf Hound), a cheetah (it purrs!), a parrot, lots of lizards, and some pretty amazing rooms. Weather is awesome.  The lion cubs’ keeper says if we are looking for snakes we are in the right place.

10:20 PM local time. Had dinner. Stomachs are upset. We met Brady Barr, Simon Boyce (producer), Hannes (local snake guy), and Willem (cameraman) at dinner.  All nice guys. At dinner Brady and Hannes delighted in telling us how dangerous a black mamba can be; a bite can be fatal in 45 minutes.  They then tell us not to worry because they have a doctor on call with the anti venom.  This was not very reassuring as the doctor is an hour away.   They also said the snakes can be 14 ft long and are very aggressive.  We would like to have bite marks in the Snakebot, but not in us.
The manipulator leads a pretty tough life on the demo circuit right now, where he breaks car windows, drills holes in boards, lifts weights, and gets broken on occasion.  At Bush Fellows we did a shakedown on the arm to make sure it is fully functional after the recent Robotics Rodeo ( We discovered that the thumb was not working properly because of a broken ground wire on motor. Donnie fixed it (see photo). Bless you, Donnie.

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Day 3: Tuesday, October 26
12:42 PM. Snakebot is ready to go. We are just waiting for the Nat Geo guys to finish setting up. We did a bunch of video of the robot driving around and showing off, since we had not gotten a call for a snake capture… Hannes told us stories about previous snake captures he has done. He is an employee of the local variant of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and he gets called out to remove dangerous snakes. He is a crocodile expert. Nice guy.

Day 3 wrap-up:
The Snakebot did pretty well. We had some issues with our wireless cameras that we think we have fixed (and they better be fixed for when we are after a snake!).  At the end of the day we fried a couple of motors in the hand after we grabbed a portable camera too hard for too long.  Lefty held the camera up high so we could try some inspection techniques.  The motors are easily fixable as we have plenty of spares. When we get back to the USA we will fix the software on the finger controllers so that this does not happen again. Hopefully tomorrow is snake day. That will be exciting.

Day 4: Wednesday, October 26
10:30 AM:  We get the call to catch a snake, so we load up and head out… A resident had reported that he saw a black mamba in a men’s restroom. (Talk about bashful bladder for the rest of your life!)

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Brady and Dan tag-teamed driving the Snakebot into the restroom to look for the snake…

Find out what happens next
on Robo-Snake TONIGHT at 8 PM et/pt on Nat Geo Wild


  1. Davo
    January 12, 2013, 7:43 pm

    Look forward to the fully autonomous robotic snake stalker / hunter / catcher / killer. Love animals, but just don’t want snakes near me or on my property. We have a snake boom at present.

  2. David Geer
    Northeast Ohio
    August 28, 2013, 1:40 pm

    I love this. A very cool, practical robot. And people don’t generally want snakes hanging around.

    David Geer
    Servo Magazine

  3. Biks can tonder
    September 6, 2013, 2:40 pm

    If you honestly believe that a black mamba is going to rest in a toilet cistern, please pull the other one. Come on Dr Barr you put that snake in there!