Rescue Robots: The Future of Nuclear Cleanup

iRobot 710 Warrior

iRobot 710 Warrior

The events at the Fukushima Daiichi plant brought to light a never-before thought of scenario — that a nuclear power plant meltdown could occur and create a disaster area that is too radioactive for humans to clean up.

The weekend of December 20, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense hosted a Grand Challenge for robotics — an obstacle course for humanoid robots that are specifically designed to operate in environments such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor buildings. It is hoped that this Challenge will lead to the development of robotic technology that functions beyond its current uses. In Japan, these kinds of robots are used in the household and for nursing care for the elderly. American robots are built for battle in dangerous and uncertain terrain, and another breed of robots are used for the uncertain environments of space exploration.

The following is a round-up of robot technologies — starting with the first line of robots that helped out in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the robots that are designed with the nuclear power plant cleanup in mind, and a new breed of robots inspired by the emergency at Fukushima that are being put to the test at DARPA.

Let the games begin.

Extreme radiation called for robots

Honda Motor Co's Asimo humanoid

Honda Motor Co’s Asimo humanoid

At the time of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Japan produced one of the highest tech robots available, Honda Motor Co’s Asimo humanoid. This robot is designed to provide household assistance and human-like interactions. To the disappointment of many, the robot was not designed for search and rescue operations and its circuitry was not able to withstand the radiation levels, according to The Japan Times.

Robots that have worked in Fukushima

Instead, the first robots to enter the nuclear reactors were designed by Americans for combat environments.

UK defense technology firm QinetiQ also supplied a range of remote controlled machines that helped engineers assess the situation inside the Fukushima nuclear plant. For photos of the QinetiQ robots in action, check out this BBC photo gallery.

iRobot’s 710 Warrior, a rugged, gear-footed prototype went into damaged buildings at Fukushima and surveyed high-dose areas within turbines, sucking up radioactive dust into a vacuum cleaner taped to its arm, according to Popular Mechanics.

iRobot 510 PackBot

iRobot 510 PackBot

Two of iRobot’s PackBots were used to survey the inside and outside of damaged reactor buildings. Their HAZMAT kits — sensors that detect radioactivity, temperature, environmental oxygen levels, and hazardous chemicals — monitored temperatures inside the reactor buildings. The Bots wove through wreckage, and removed up to 30 pounds of hazardous debris unsafe for human contact.

Although several robots worked inside the plant immediately after the crisis, they were not designed to repair a nuclear reactor. The operational environment within a large complex such as a power station poses high demands on these robots, such as obstacles and unforeseen circumstances.

“The biggest problem associated with robots deployed into such zones was maintenance, because if repairs were needed, it would be difficult for humans to get anywhere near. The solution would be to fix everything remotely, or while wearing heavy protective clothing,” reported BBC News, from a discussion with Mark Clark, a spokesperson for robotic firm Qinetiq, who also cautioned that using machines not designed for the specific conditions of a nuclear plant would always be a compromise.

Since 2011, Japanese companies received funding to design robots specific to the environments of Fukushima, and creating what is hyped to be a “robot revolution.” The technology is still nascent, and the robots have been a mixed success.

>>Watch an NHK documentary on the “robot revolution.”

In 2012, Mitsubishi, Toshiba and Hitachi demonstrated their newly minted clean-up robots. MEISTeR (Maintenance Equipment Integrated System of Telecontrol Robot) is Mitsubishi’s “tankbot.” It stands about 1.3m (4ft) tall and has two arms, each able to hold loads of up to 15kg (33lb). The robot’s electronics are hardened to withstand radiation, according to CNET News.

MEISTeR, Mitsubishi's "tankbot"

MEISTeR, Mitsubishi’s “tankbot”

Toshiba’s quadruped can negotiate stairs and uneven terrain, and is able to avoid low-lying obstacles. But it initially did not fare well during its demonstration. It wobbled and froze, but was cleared for work regardless of the glitches, reported FOX News and CNET.

Hitachi’s ASTACO-SoRa model is designed to move rubble. Gizmag reports: “The ASTACO-SoRa robot and its control station were developed by the subsidiaries Hitachi Engineering & Services and Hitachi Construction Machinery… Measuring 98 cm (3 feet, 2 inches) across with its arms tucked in, the robot is small enough to enter most areas. It weighs 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes), moves at up to 2.6 km/h (1.6 mph), and can operate for up to 15 hours thanks to its diesel engine, but it cannot move up stairs.”

Robotic competitions spur innovation

Competitions have assisted in the development of robotic technologies. Quince 2, one of the major robotic contributors to the clean-up effort thus far, was developed as part of Robocup 2013.

The U.S. government, through its experimental technologies research lab DARPA, hosted a competition over weekend for “Gladiator Robots,” which are designed to overcome the very challenges that robots were confronted with at Fukushima.

Located at the Homestead Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., the competition hosted robot prototypes that were run through a challenge course consisting of eight tasks to evaluate robots’ perception, autonomous decision-making, mobility, dexterity and strength — all the qualities DARPA expects robots would need to work in disaster scenarios, according to WIRED magazine.

While an anthropomorphic robot named Atlas, by Boston Dynamics, had been hyped as the front runner, by Saturday, it appeared as if a team from the University of Tokyo has emerged as a dominant player as the top eight robots moved into the second round. Team “Schaft” executed each of the eight challenges nearly flawlessly, losing points only because the wind blew a door out of its robot’s grasp and because the robot was not yet able to climb out of the vehicle after it successfully navigated an obstacle course, reported the Herald-Tribune.

Schaft is one of several robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, that NBC News reported to be purchased recently by Google’s new and mysterious robotics division.

Perhaps Schaft will redeem Japan’s confidence in its leadership in the robotics industry.