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Robotics industry learns from successes and failures at Fukushima

Sharon Gaudin | March 16, 2017
Robots crawl into, sometimes get lost, in rubble of highly radioactive disaster site

Workers involved in the cleanup are relying on old-school, remotely operated robots, instead of autonomous machines. These tried-and-true machines move much like the robots used in the late 1970s and 1980s. What’s different are the advanced sensors and cameras on the robots going into Fukushima, along with improved human and robot interaction.

”We are playing it safe,” Padir said. "In this nuclear robotics community, since these apps are really critical, rather than relying on autonomy, we’re relying on human control… We use proven technology. Say, you have a robot running autonomous code and your collision avoidance algorithms break and [the robot] starts crashing into structures inside the reactor. That could cause more damage."

While the nuclear industry needs to play it safe with the robots being sent into Fukushima, it still needs to get the most radiation-resistant and toughest robots available.

Companies and organizations including Toshiba, Endeavor Robotics, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy and Japan's Chiba Institute of Technology have contributed robots to the efforts at Fukushima.

And many of the robots sent to Fukushima have worked well.

The International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, or IRID, in 2014 reported that a swimming robot and a crawling robot, both developed by Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy, were able to perform checks using cameras and sensors inside five penetration points in one damaged reactor.

Endeavor Robotics, formerly the Defense & Security unit at iRobot Corp., began delivering robotic systems to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or Tepco, which owns the Fukushima plant, just 19 days after the 2011 accident.

Since then the Massachusetts-based company has delivered 20 robots, including its 65-pound PackBot system, as well as its Kobra robot. Both machines are equipped with cameras and manipulative arms.

endeavor robotics packbot stairclimb
Endeavor Robotics An Endeavor PackBot robot makes its way downstairs.

The Endeavor robots mainly have been used inside reactor buildings to open doors, perform inspections and check for leaks. The Kobra, which can have a saw attached to one of its two arms, also has been used to move debris.

However, not all of the robots working at Fukushima have been as successful.

The problem here is that many of the robots that have worked well at Fukushima were bigger than earlier robots and were used in and around the buildings. Three robots that recently failed, however, had been sent into the bowels of the reactors.

This is the most critical work — getting into the tight, highly radioactive areas where the fuel needs to be assessed and cleaned up — and the robots needed for that are failing.


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