Robots come in all shapes and sizes, and while robotics experts are often inspired by nature when designing new bots, you probably wouldn’t think a snake would provide much inspiration. You’d be wrong, of course, because researchers just invented a way to make snake-like robots slither along the ground, and they did it using a design perfected by Mother Nature herself.

Using artificial snake skin — that is, plastic scales wrapped around a soft, flesh-like body — scientists have succeeded in prototyping and perfecting a snake-like covering for a crawling robot which allows it to move across the ground like an earthworm. However, while the end result might look like a rather simple thing to achieve, finding the right combination of scale shape and configuration was a long and tedious process.

To help design their artificial snake skin, the researchers, which published their work in Science Robotics, looked to the past. Using techniques adopted from the Japanese art of paper cutting called Kirigami, the team set about designing various scale shapes in order to see how each reacted when stretched and constricted.

An inflatable silicon tube serves as the body of the robotic snake. When the tube is inflated it causes the bot to stretch out like a worm, and when deflated it shrinks, prompting the scales to grab on and pull the rest of the body forward. The researchers quickly found that certain scale shapes work better for this than others, with trapezoidal scales allowing for the fastest overall movement.

Snake robots might seem bizarre, but this actually isn’t even the first wormy robot to come along. A snake-like robot designed for disaster relief recently stole headlines when it was deployed into Japan’s Fukushima reactors in order to observe how the structure is holding up in the years following the catastrophic meltdown.

This new self-propelled scaly bot won’t be carrying out duties like that any time soon, but the progress made by the researchers could be applied to other robots in the future in order to enhance mobility.