I just saw the video on /.
Unlike what they claim, its not actually one single snake robot. Its quite a few snake robots, most developed over the last 6 years.
They are made in Howie's 'snake lab', typically by undergraduates that want to get involved in robotics research. The lab has been around for I think 10+ years now, so its a technology that has been worked on by many many people over a long period of time.
on the very last part of the video the robot swims in water and seems to be cordless.
That test was done in like 2003, and I was there when they did the test. But I don't remember if it was cordless or not . . . I think it was . . . It didn't have any sensors or intelligent control.
And these big CMU prjects, do students participate in these? And for working on these big projects you need a lot of time, don't they have to take other classes?
Some professors offer course credit, but most of the time students are free slave laborers
Typically students beg to help out as a chance to 'get in'. But its not like you sign contracts or anything, many students stop showing up when classes and exams get hard.
When I was a student, I did research at CMU's NanoRobotics lab. I was a slave laborer, but in return my prof taught me all about how to present my research, writing papers, and all the other skills needed to be a good robotics researcher. He funded my work, and offered equipment, and course credit (that I didn't actually need). Plus, it looks good on a resume for getting a job or applying for grad school.
I credit what I learned in that lab for getting 1st on my paper at ICRA 2007