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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

Padir noted that that scientists are also learning what components on the robots are durable to radiation.

"What will die first? The computer? The camera? How much shielding do you need?” he asked. "We claim that we know how to shield things, but the radiation levels are so high that no one knows, until we put a robot in that situation, how it will do.”

One idea coming out of this work is the possibility of building modular robots, Padir said. If a robot has a six-piece body, for instance, and one piece gets stuck in the rubble, the stuck component could detach itself while the rest of the robot moves ahead with the mission.

Scientists have also learned of a greater need for operator training. The environment that the robots enter at Fukushima is unknown. It could be a tight space, full of rubble and the potential to get stuck or damaged at every turn. This is a major challenge for the robot’s operator, who is working under heavy stress to direct the robot, guided only by what the machine’s sensors and cameras see.

"You’ve got to train these guys as if you’re training F16 pilots because they need to be ready for those unexpected circumstances,” said Padir, who is working on a robotics project with the U.S. Department of Energy.

"This is all generating a lot of new knowledge,” he added. "Every failure is something learned for the robotics community. Everything we learn is going to make the next robot better and greater to take on these challenging tasks."


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