Meet the Robots of Fukushima Daiichi

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ORIGINAL: IEEE Spectrum
By Eliza Strickland
28 Feb 2014
A cleanup crew of automatons will go where humans fear to tread

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Entering the Danger Zone: In March 2011, a series of meltdowns and explosions turned the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station into a radioactive ruin. The damaged reactor buildings are far too radioactive for humans to safely work in, so robots are surveying radiation levels and starting the cleanup. The PackBot, an inspection bot from iRobot of Bedford, Mass., was one of the first bots to arrive at the site.

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Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Photo

Homegrown: Despite Japan’s thriving robotics industry, there were few domestically produced robots capable of working in a rubble-strewn disaster site. This Quince, built by researchers at the Chiba Institute of Technology, near Tokyo, was one of the few that was ready to go.

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Photo: TEPCO

A Bot’s-Eye View: After hundreds of tests, plant owner TEPCO cleared the Quince robots to enter the Fukushima Daiichi reactor buildings. The bots send back video and radiation readings to TEPCO workers who are planning the cleanup and decommissioning efforts. The Quince’s tanklike treads allow it to climb up and down the steep stairs inside the buildings.

 

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Photo: Kyodo/AP Photo

Bigger and Tougher: The next-generation robot from the Chiba Institute researchers, Sakura, can roll over rubble or through shallow pools of water. It can also carry heavy equipment, like a camera capable of detecting dangerous gamma radiation.

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Photo: Kyodo/AP Photo

Has Arms, Will Travel: After the accident, the Japanese government gave grants to leading industrial companies to help them develop robots that can assist with cleanup efforts. Hitachi built the ASTACO-SoRa, whose two arms can be fitted with pinchers, cutting blades, or drills.

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Photo: TEPCO

One Piece at a Time: The ASTACO-SoRa has already begun work inside the Fukushima Daiichi reactor buildings. Each of its arms can reach 2.5 meters and lift 150 kilograms. The bot can clear a path through the debris for other decontamination robots and, eventually, for humans.

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Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Walking Tall: Toshiba developed this four-legged robot that can walk on uneven surfaces, avoid obstacles, and climb stairs. So far it’s equipped with cameras and dosimeters, as well as a small camera-topped companion bot, which can be inserted into tight spaces. The company wants to add arms so the tetrapod can install shielding, patch leaks, and remove debris.

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Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

A Big Blaster: To bring down radiation levels inside the reactor buildings, robots must scrub surfaces clean and suck up the resulting muck. Toshiba’s new decontamination robot will use high-pressure jets of dry ice to scour away radioactive materials, along with top layers of paint or concrete.

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Photo: TEPCO

For the Floor: The Raccoon, from Atox, has been scrubbing floors inside reactor buildings. Radiation levels must be brought down so human workers can go inside to plan the next stages of the decommissioning process: stopping up leaks and removing the melted fuel from the damaged reactors.

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Photo: Kyodo/AP Photo

Armed for Duty: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries contributed this two-armed bot, the MHI-MEISTeR. Its arms can be fitted with a variety of tools, including one drill that can take a core sample from concrete walls and floors. Each arm has seven degrees of freedom, making the bot a versatile and flexible worker.

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Photo: Honda

Looking Up: This long-necked survey bot, built by Honda and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, can inspect high and inaccessible areas. The robot’s mast can extend 7 meters, and the flexible arm on top can peek around obstacles. The robot uses movement systems developed for ASIMO, Honda’s famous humanoid robot.

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Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Lofty Ambition: The Super Giraffe from Mitsubishi is another tall bot, unfolding and extending to reach 8 meters high. An arm atop the telescoping ladder is equipped with a tool to open and close valves, and Mitsubishi is developing other tools for applications such as welding and drilling. This bot can operate for 5 hours thanks to a lithium-ion battery adapted from Mitsubishi’s electric vehicles.

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Photo: ActivelinkAn Exoskeleton Assist: While TEPCO hasn’t yet expressed interest in exoskeleton technology for its Fukushima Daiichi workers, that hasn’t stopped roboticists from building systems and suggesting them for use in the power plant. This Powerloader from Activelink, a subsidiary of Panasonic, could help workers bear the weight of heavy radiation suits and allow them to manipulate heavy objects.

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Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

Robotic Muscle: Cyberdyne has upgraded its exoskeleton technology to be suitable for Fukushima Daiichi. Its current offering, which includes radiation shielding and biomedical sensors, allows workers to lift heavy loads.

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