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US Robots to Peek Inside Japan's Nuclear Meltdown

Mar 24, 2011 – 9:57 AM
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Lauren Frayer

Lauren Frayer Contributor

The world may soon get a glimpse inside Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant -- through the "eyes" of a U.S.-made robot.

A Massachusetts company that manufactures robots for U.S. military bomb disposal units in Iraq and Afghanistan has sent four of its top-technology robots to Japan, to venture into radiation-exposed areas where it's too dangerous for humans to go. The machines take measurements and record real-time color video, then transmit it back to engineers in the safety zone.

The U.S. company, iRobot, sent four robots to Japan last Friday, including two of its top "Warrior" models capable of climbing stairs, crossing through water with flippers and lifting 150-pound payloads -- all the while recording video, audio and radioactivity data. The Warrior, which can cost up to $350,000 depending on how it's outfitted, uses iRobot's very latest technology, which wasn't due out until this summer.

iRobot 710 Warrior
Courtesy of iRobot
The iRobot 710 Warrior is one of four U.S.-made robots sent to assist Japanese engineers at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
"Our team worked through the night to pack them up and ship them out," Tim Trainer, iRobot's vice president, told AOL News by telephone from the company's Bedford, Mass., headquarters. "We are going over the capabilities and functions of the robots [with Japanese officials] and providing training to those who need it. Ultimately they [Japanese officials] will make decisions on exactly when and how the robots are deployed."

The Fukushima Dai-ichi plant's cooling system failed after it was knocked offline March 11 by a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. Since then, radiation has been leaking from the facility, 140 miles north of Tokyo. Two workers suffered injuries today when their feet came into contact with radioactive elements while they were trying to lay new electricity cables in part of the plant, a nuclear safety spokesman told The Associated Press. More than two dozen workers have been injured in nearly two weeks of explosions, fires and radiation emissions there.

The deployment of mechanical helpers like those from iRobot could lessen the safety risks to the plant's human staffers.

One of the U.S. company's first robots was Genghis, a six-legged, yellow insect-like rover designed as a model for space exploration 20 years ago. It's been displayed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Subsequent models include robots that delve down to fix mechanical glitches in deep-sea oil rigs, detect and dispose of land mines in war zones, and even consumer models that clean floors, gutters and swimming pools.

"We sent robots down to New York on 9/11 for search and rescue operations, and just as recently as last summer, we sent an underwater robot we have down to the Gulf of Mexico to help determine what the impact of the oil spill was," Trainer said.

"That was technology that wasn't necessarily designed for oil spills, but put it into that situation and we were able to give some significant feedback to those in charge of the spill response," he said. "We're essentially in the same situation right now -- we've got some technology that isn't pointedly designed for the specific [nuclear] mission, but we're going to send that forward and try to understand, 'Could we provide some value to the Japanese, to try to mitigate this horrible situation?' "

Trainer said he doesn't know exactly when his company's robots will enter the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, or even whether they may have done so already. The equipment has never been exposed to such high levels of radioactive material.

"Certainly, radiation will have some impact on the circuits. ... Some of this will be understanding what it might be like to operate in such conditions," Trainer said. "To be quite honest with you, some of this will be experimentation."

Since the massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit Japan, stirring up a tsunami that's claimed at least 18,000 deaths, there have been increasing calls for robots to be deployed at nuclear plants ahead of time, to respond in case disaster strikes. Robots are already used in the construction and maintenance of nuclear sites around the world.

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After a 1999 accident at Japan's Tokaimura nuclear facility, the Japanese government enlisted local companies like Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Toshiba to built prototype robots, including one radiation-proof model.

But the robots sold poorly, and when disaster struck at Fukushima, the plant had no such robots. In addition to iRobot, it's unclear how many other companies, like those that dabbled in research after the 1999 incident, have now rushed equipment to Fukushima as well.

"We are in the robotics business, and I think we'll learn a lot from applying our technology a bit differently here," Trainer said. "The hope is that we will become smarter as a result of this."
Filed under: World, Science, Tech, AOL Original, Japan Disaster
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