, by Peter Murray April 27th, 2011


Two 510 PackBots enter one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors damaged by the March 11 earthquake to find radiation levels were too high for humans.



The trend to put robots in harm’s way, instead of humans, continues. On April 17th a pair of robots entered two reactor buildings of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant–the plant most severely damaged by the March 11th earthquake. Their job was to determine whether or not the plant was safe for reentry by human repair crews. The robots confirmed what Japanese officials feared: radiation levels were way too high for humans.

The robots used by the Japanese officials were a pair of 510 PackBots. Built by iRobot, the Bedford, Mass. company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, PackBots are already being used by U.S. forces to carry out dangerous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PackBots have helped save soldiers lives by neutralizing roadside bombs, car bombs, and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs); they screen vehicles, buildings and people, and they search through high-risk structures such as buildings and sewers.

Upon request by Japanese officials, iRobot sent over a pair of PackBots to help in the “war zones” of crippled nuclear factories. The company modified its 510 PackBots to better investigate the ruined factories, outfitting it with the company’s full hazmat gear: an array of sensors able to detect air oxygen levels, temperature, gamma radiation, as well as hazardous materials and chemicals. The PackBots’ lightweight frames–between 48 and 60 pounds–allow them to nimbly navigate factory debris. Precise control of the manipulator arms enable controllers to adjust equipment or objects inside the plant. The robots are also fitted with a camera that sees in either visible light or infrared and streams the images through a fiber optic cable to a control team safely located hundreds of feet away. In addition to the radiation readings, the video data will allow repair teams to map out salvage strategies for other, heavy-lifting robots as well as for human crews.

After pushing their way through the outer doors of reactor buildings Unit 1 and Unit 3 the PackBot pair collected and analyzed air samples. The news was not good. Radiation levels were 49 millisieverts per hour in unit 1; in Unit 3 they reached 57 millisieverts per hour. To put that into perspective, workers in the U.S. can legally be exposed to 50 millisieverts per year and radiation sickness occurs at 1,000 millisieverts, according the associated press. Prior to the earthquake the radiation limit for Japanese workers was 125 millisieverts. Japanese authorities doubled the limit after the earthquake to 250 millisieverts per year. But even at the increased limit workers at Fukushima Daiichi would absorb their year’s worth of exposure in just 5 hours. The video below shows some great footage from the PackBots as they maneuver inside one of the debris-strewn reactors.


Robots show inside Fukushima reactor buildings


With more than 3,000 PackBots in military and civil service around the world, the 510 PackBot is one of the world’s most successful battle-tested robots. Behind its versatility is its capacity to accommodate a wide range of payloads and sensors, including manipulators, all of which are controlled by iRobot’s Aware 2 intelligence software that allows for modular, mission-specific configuration.

The PackBots are joined at Fukushima Daiichi by two other types of robots: two 710 Warriors–also made by iRobot–and a more rugged robot called Talon, created by a British defense firm called QinetiQ (QinetiQ’s American group, QinetiQ North America sent the robots to Japan). Like the PackBots, both the Warriors and Talons specialize in high-risk reconnaissance and the disposal of explosives and hazardous materials–they just do it with more muscle. The Talon weighs about twice as much as a PackBot and its not-so-delicate platform can be outfitted with ordinance from rifles to anti-tank missiles in combat theaters. The Warrior, also much larger and stronger than the PackBot, is able to carry payloads up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds). iRobot engineers attached an arm to the Warriors that is capable of dragging a fire hose and potentially positioning it to cool off the hot reactors. A Warrior can also carry a PackBot, which comes in handy if the PackBot needs to be placed through a raised target such as a window.

Even with the brawn of the Warrior and Talon robots, the capacity to move objects inside the factories without human help is extremely limited. Nevertheless, given the high levels of radiation any amount of removal is precious. Japanese safety officials are hopeful that the robots can get rid of some of the contaminated water and other debris before having to send in their crews.

The Fukushima Daiichi robots are the most recent examples of the ever-increasing reach of robotic helping hands. As was the case for the PackBot, Warrior, and Talon, modern warfare has been the main proving grounds for removing humans from danger and replacing them with robots. The most extraordinary example as of late is the U.S. Navy’s X-47B, an unmanned aerial vehicle with strike capabilities. Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk drone is being used to take crucial video in the radioactive skies above Fukushima Daiichi.

Sitting on the rim of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan’s high risk for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions has given rise to a country with an emphasis for natural disaster rescue technologies. On the other side of the Ring, California too is developing technologies to prepare for the inevitable. In natural disaster as in war, robots are already rapidly stepping up to the front lines so we don’t have to. In the future we’ll see them grow even more integral, and we’ll see even more human lives be saved.

video: IDG Communications


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