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Japan Earthquake: iRobot Sending Packbots and Warriors to Fukushima Dai-1 Nuclear Plant

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency

iRobot Warrior 710s getting prepared for deployment to Japan.

The Special Ops group of Japan's Self Defense Forces has asked iRobot for some robotic assistance with the situation at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant, where several reactors are dangerously unstable after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami led to failures of their cooling systems last week.

Four robots, including iRobot's Packbot 510 and Warrior 710, left Bedford, Mass., this morning on their way to Japan, along with a team of iRobot employees to provide support, an iRobot spokesperson told me.

The iRobot team will be training Japanese defense personnel, who will control the robots remotely, from a protected vehicle, and iRobot employees will not be getting close to the reactors themselves.

These robots may be able assist at Fukushima Dai-1 in several different ways. The Packbot 510s are equipped with HazMat payloads [photo below], which can detect temperature, gamma radiation, explosive gases and vapors, and toxic chemicals, and feed all of that data back to their controllers in real-time.

The Warrior 710 [photo below] is much larger and stronger than the Packbots, able to carry payloads of up to 68 kilograms (150 pounds), while lifting over 90 kg (200 lbs) with their arms.

According to the iRobot spokesperson, the Warriors may be used as robotic "firefighters," pulling hoses into hot zones inside the nuclear plant to help direct the flow of cooling water. Whether the robots will actually carry out that mission is unclear at this point.

Both of these robots are equipped with cameras that stream live video back to their operators, who steer them using game-style controllers. The bots have a wireless range of over 600 meters (about 2,000 feet), are capable of negotiating rubble and climbing stairs, can handle being dropped 1.8 m (6 ft) onto concrete, and will continue to function even after being completely submerged in water. The Warrior 710 is even able to carry Packbots on its back, and deploy them into structures through windows.

Details are still a bit scarce on what the timeline for iRobot is here; we just know that they've packed up their robots and are on their way with plans to help. We'll be bringing you updates as they're available.

Images: iRobot

Japan Earthquake: More Robots to the Rescue

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake
Japanese roboticists plan to use the KOHGA3 ground robot (shown here during a test) to inspect a collapsed building in Hachinohe, in the northeastern portion of Honshu island.

Japan is mobilizing more robots to assist with rescue and recovery operations after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country last Friday.

As we reported earlier, two teams are on standby, ready to deploy ground and snake-like robots. One team is based in Tokyo and the other in Sendai, but they are prepared to travel anywhere in Japan where they are needed.

Now I've learned that two other teams are also ready to field their robots. A group led by Prof. Eiji Koyanagi from Chiba Institute of Technology received a request from a company in Kajima, in the Chiba Prefecture, eastern of Tokyo, for a robot that can inspect underwater infrastructure (the roboticists are not allowed to disclose the name of the company and the nature of the infrastructure). Prof. Koyanagi visited the site to assess what robot could be used.

Another team, led by Prof. Fumitoshi Matsuno from Kyoto University, who's vice president of the International Rescue System Institute, is traveling to Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, to help inspect a building whose ceiling collapsed. His group will work with colleagues from the Hachinohe Institute of Technology to send in a ground robot called KOHGA3 [photo above].

Below is a video of KOHGA3 during a recent exercise at Disaster City, a simulated collapsed town in College Station, Texas, and the world's largest training facility for urban search and rescue.

The activities in Kajima and Hachinohe don't involve searching for survivors. They are recovery missions with the goal of ascertain damage and plan the next steps in terms of repairs and reconstruction.

In fact, recovery, rather than search and rescue, should be the focus of most robot operations from now on. The Japanese teams, however, remain prepared to assist emergency responders should their robots become necessary.

Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro from Tohoku University and president of the International Rescue System Institute tells me he contacted the fire departments of Sendai and Kobe, as well as the Ministry of Trade and Industry's Tohoku Branch and various businesses, to inform that his team's robots are available for any kind of mission. He says robots would be particularly useful to look for damages at warehouses and factories.

"I offered robotic inspection of damaged factories, particularly of dangerous locations like a chemical plant," he says.

Tadokoro, Koyanagi, Matsuno, and their colleagues Tetsuya Kimura, from Nagaoka University of Technology, and Katsuji Ohgane, from Niigata Institute of Technology -- among the leading Japanese experts in rescue robotics -- were actually in the United States when the earthquake struck. They were testing their robots at Disaster City and participating in a workshop organized by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, headed by Prof. Robin Murphy, another authority in rescue robotics. The researchers are also members of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society

quince search and rescue robotThe teams flew home as soon as they heard about the quake, arriving in Japan the next day. Prof. Tadokoro left Narita airport driving to his home in Sendai carrying on the trunk of his vehicle a tank-like ground robot called Quince and the Active Scope Camera, a remote-controlled snake-like robot.

Quince [photo, right], developed as part of Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) project, is a creation of researchers led by Prof. Tadokoro and Prof. Koyanagi, with support from the International Rescue System Institute.

The Active Scope Camera is one of several Japanese robots that have actually been used in real disasters. Below is a photo showing the device at the site of the Berkman Plaza 2 parking garage collapse in Jacksonville, Fl., in 2008.

active scope camera berkman plaza 2 garage collapse jacksonville florida

Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera during a demonstration:

As he drove to Sendai, through roads away from the ocean, Prof. Tadokoro didn't see many collapsed buildings; most destruction in this area was caused by the tsunami. That means his robots probably won't be needed here, as they're best suited for inspecting rubble and damaged structures. 

But Prof. Tadokoro and his colleagues don't have time to rest. With recovery operations just beginning and the possibility of more aftershocks as well as the threat of a nuclear crisis, the roboticists and their robots remain on standby.

More photos of KOHGA3:

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

Photos and video: Kyoto University; Tohoku University; International Rescue System Institute  

Supposedly, Iran Has Supposedly Constructed a Robotic 'Flying Saucer' (Supposedly)

Iran's Fars News Agency, which is generally acknowledged to be "semi-official" with ties to the Iranian government, is reporting the unveiling of "a home-made flying saucer." Here's the picture that they posted along with their article:

Seriously. Check the link. I mean, I would have just chalked this up to a hilariously misunderstood translation, but, well... That's their picture.

I apologize for simply quoting their article here, but I'm worried that if I don't, you're all going to think that this is just one big joke:

"The unmanned flying saucer, named "Zohal", was unveiled in a ceremony attended by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.

Zohal, designed and developed jointly by Farnas Aerospace Company and Iranian Aviation and Space Industries Association (IASIA), can be used for various missions, specially for aerial imaging.

The flying machine is equipped with an auto-pilot system, GPS (Global Positioning System) and two separate imaging systems with full HD 10 mega-pixel picture quality and is able to take and send images simultaneously.

Zohal uses a small, portable navigation and monitoring center for transmission of data and images and can fly in both outdoor and indoor spaces."

Okay so obviously, if it can fly in indoor spaces, it's probably (probably) not the giant flying saucer blurrily hovering over a forest like in the picture. I did some digging, and a few other (less "semi-official") Iranian news sites refer to this thing as a "cuadrotor." Ohhh, okay Iran, you made yourself a quadrotor. Well that straightens that out, I guess, if we're going to assume that Fars News is just messing with us and Iran does not in fact have an actual robotic flying saucer.

And what if they did have an actual robotic flying saucer? It might not look like the thing in their picture, but it could easily be something like this:

Yep, that's an actual flying saucer UAV. It's called a Coandă effect UAV, in reference to the effect that causes air (or any fluid) to tend to stick to a curved surface. The UAV has a rotor at the top that thrusts air downward, and the air sticks to the body of the UAV, flowing around and down over the curved bottom edge to provide lift and thrust. Vanes around the edges of the UAV are used for steering and to counter the torque of the single rotor. While Coandă effect UAVs are generally not as efficient as helicopters, they're dynamically balanced in flight and have a rotor that's both enclosed and smaller than the body of the UAV, making them much more resilient.

So an Iranian Coandă effect UAV is within the realm of possibility, but I'm still betting that Iran has just put together a regular old quadrotor with GPS guidance and a data downlink. Pretty cool, but sadly, it's no flying saucer.

[ Fars News ] via [ Daily Mail ]

Remote Control Cyborg Roaches to Invade Classrooms

Getting kids involved in, and invested in, robotics and cybernetics isn't an easy task. That very first step, helping them to realize that hey wow they can actually do it, is a tough one. Backyard Brains has come up with what looks to be a fun (and more importantly cheap) way of bringing robotics, cybernetics, and neurobiology into the classroom, as long as you're not creeped out by bugs.

The Backyard Brains Cockroach Cerebral Enslavement Kit (I made that name up) takes the guts out of a Hexbug (cost: $10), adds a little chip that can generate biophasic pulses, and wires it up to the antennas of a large cockroach. By mimicking the signals that the roach's brain receives when one of its antennas runs into something, the insect can be steered left and right:

For those of you concerned about the well-being of the cockroaches (I know I was!), Backyard Brains has this to say:

The cockroaches only have the backpacks on for a couple minutes. The cockroaches are not killed. They are allowed to retire and make cockroach babies and live out the remainder of their cockroach lives eating organic lettuce and carrots and playing in small wooden jungle gyms.

Phew, I feel better now.

After a little more tweaking (they only have a 25% success rate getting the roaches to respond to the backpack so far), Backyard Brains hopes to package all this into an affordable kit that can be used to provide students with hands-on demos and lessons in robotics and neurobiology. Hopefully, lesson two will involve doing the same type of thing to flying insects, to make fully steerable roboinsectoplanes. You know, like these.

[ Backyard Brains ] via [ AOL ]

Japan Earthquake: Global Hawk UAV May Be Able to Peek Inside Damaged Reactors

global hawk block 30

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

UPDATE: The U.S. Air Force informs us that the schematic below is of a Global Hawk model Block 40; the drone used in Japan is a Block 30.

A U.S. Air Force Global Hawk drone based out of Guam is tentatively scheduled to overfly the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant today, in order to provide a more complete picture of what's going on inside the facility.

Japan, after being struck by its biggest-ever recorded earthquake on 11 March, and then hit by a devastating tsunami an hour later, has been battling a third potential catastrophe in the form of a nuclear meltdown.

Dangerous levels of radiation are preventing nuclear workers and emergency responders from safely approaching the facility's four reactors to control fires and assess the extent of damages. If the Global Hawk can provide detailed images of the buildings, it could be a big help for the authorities planning the next attempts to cool down the damaged reactors.

The Global Hawk is an autonomous, jet-powered UAV with a sensor package that includes synthetic-aperture radar as well as electro-optical and infrared sensors with telescopic capability for high-resolution imagery.

The infrared sensors, which can detect heat, may be able to acquire images of the reactors showing which parts of them are at what temperatures, and repeated observations could provide critical data about the effectiveness of different attempts at cooling the reactor vessels and spent fuel pools.

Earlier today, helicopters dumped approximately 30 tons of seawater on the No. 3 reactor building to attempt to cool it down, but officials are still trying to figure out if it had any effect. Data from the Global Hawk's sensors could potentially detect whether or not the seawater had an effect on the temperature inside the reactor, and therefore whether or not additional helicopter flights, or deploying truck-mounted water cannons, makes sense.

For the past few days, the Global Hawk has been assisting with disaster relief efforts around Japan by collecting near real-time imagery which allows officials to better prioritize and direct their resources. This is a familiar role for the Global Hawk, which also helped to monitor the situation in Haiti after the 7.0 earthquake there in January of last year.

The Global Hawk, with a 35-meter wingspan, is capable of conducting surveillance for 36 hours at a stretch at altitudes of up to 18 kilometers (60,000 feet). It can survey 100,000 square kilometers (about 40,000 square miles) of terrain -- the size of the state of Illinois -- in a single day, entirely without human intervention: Once the robot receives its instructions, everything from taxiing to takeoff to data collection to landing is performed entirely autonomously.

The drone was originally designed for the U.S. Air Force as a long-duration surveillance aircraft, and has a history of successful and effective use in Iraq and Afghanistan, offering on-demand near real-time imagery that can't be provided by satellites. The platform proved to be successful enough that Global Hawks have been adapted for climate monitoring and environmental mapping, and NASA has a pair of the UAVs that it's using as technology demonstrators.

Images: Northrop Grumman

[ Global Hawk ] via [ U.S. Air Force ] and [ Kyodo News ]

Robonaut Gets Unpacked, Finally

Robonaut 2 was delivered to the International Space Station in a giant packing crate last month.I don't know about you, but if somebody sent me an awesome robot that looks more than a little bit like a Cylon, I wouldn't leave it all packed up in its box. And you know what? President Obama agrees with me, and during his live chat with the ISS crew on March 8, he directed (or, suggested, anyway) that they let the bot out already:

"Still in packing foam? That's a shame, man! C'mon guys, unpack the guy! He flew all that way and you guys aren't unpacking him?"

Steven Lindsey, commander of STS-133, replied:

"You know, the poor guy's been locked in that foam for about four months now... Every once in a while we hear some scratching sounds from inside, maybe a 'let me out, let me out,' but we're not sure."

Uh, that's kinda creepy. But for better or worse, R2 is now officially out of its packing crate, hooray!

You know, in that stowed pose, R2 looks almost exactly like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot. Not that I'm implying anything...

Sadly, R2 still has a long wait ahead of it, since testing isn't scheduled to begin until May. In the meantime, R2 is just going to sit there on its pedestal, ready to rock 'n sock anyone who happens to float too close.

[ Robonaut ] via [ AP ] and [ @Astrorobonaut ]

Cyberdyne Demos New Flavors of HAL Exoskeleton

When I tested out Cyberdyne's HAL exoskeleton at CES in January, it turns out I was testing just one of several significantly different versions of the power suit that Cyberdyne has under development. Specifically, I was wearing the medical rehab version of HAL, which Cyberdyne plans to introduce commercially alongside a separate strength enhancing version, along with a dedicated single cyborg arm to help people repetitively lift and hold heavy objects.

While the suits may be designed for different purposes, the underlying technology is fundamentally the same: as I found out, the HAL suits use skin sensors to detect electrical commands as they travel from your brain to your muscles, and then the suit moves you itself before those muscles even have a chance to kick in. The suit you really want to take home, though, is definitely the industrial version, which looks quite a bit beefier and more fantastical, includes the upper body segments, and probably doesn't (but might!) allow you to punch straight through a brick wall. Plus, it comes in a sexy red color, which just screams I'M A SUPERHERO.

The basis for HAL is an entirely new field called "cybernics," which (as far as I can tell) was more or less invented by Cyberdyne's president and CEO, Yoshiyuki Sankai:

"The word cybernics comes from cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics. But this field also requires neurology, behavioral science, robotics, IT, physiology, and psychology. It also involves law, so it even extends as far as the social sciences. We're going to develop this field by looking at all perspectives, from fundamental research to the real world."

It's great that Cyberdyne is working so hard to make sure that their technology is useful for the general public who needs it, and not just industry and the military. I'm (still) looking forward to the day when I can go down to my local robotics emporium and rent an exoskeleton for a few hours, for those times when I need to move my couch or finally take my revenge on that kid who punched me in the nose for no reason in middle school. I'm coming for ya, buddy, just as soon as I can stuff my feet into these tiny shoes.

[ Cyberdyne ] via [ DigInfo ]

Top 10 Robot Videos of the Month

robot drops grenade on live television

February was a big month for robots, but then, from our perspective, every month is a big month for robots. Robonaut finally made it to the ISS, and Watson proved that humans are doomed at Jeopardy, more or less. And did we mention a bomb-disposal bot dropped a real grenade on live TV [image above]? Oops.

Here's our favorite robot videos from February. We're actually going in order, so please feel free to let us know why we're dead wrong about what we liked best in the comments.

10. Assembling and disassembling little robots is a chore, unless the robots can do it all by themselves. Eventually, you'll just be able to swallow all the right pieces and have robots built themselves in your tummy.

9. Robonaut is now in space, ready to take over for the astronauts. The good kind of take over, that is.

8. In just under 55 hours, two humanoid robots (one of them autonomous) finished an actual 26.22 mile marathon in Osaka, Japan.

7. Dropping and then running over a grenade is usually not a great idea, even for a robot. Two things are worth mentioning here: one, it's probably human error, and two, this is exactly why they're using a robot. (Grenade drop happens around 2:50 in the video.)

6. CrabFu, master of awesomely bizarre DIY robots, turned a hamster named Princess into a walking cyborg machine.

5. IBM's Watson may be really, really smart, but it's not infallible, as it shows in this clip from its Jeopardy competition. For the record, it may have been thinking of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, named after the Canadian WWI (?) fighter ace.

4. Northrop Grumman's X-47B robotic fighter jet took to the air for the first time, and it'll start landing on aircraft carriers in a year or two.

3. An Anybots QB rolled into a Mountain View coffee shop and ordered a scone, but the cool part is that it was more or less just business as usual for both parties involved. Maybe people are starting to get used to this whole living with robots thing.

2. Not news: the CIA had a fully operational life-size robot dragonfly. News: in 1970.

1. Yes, it is now possible to control a robotic car with your brain. Welcome to the future.


 

So, what do you think? How'd we do this month?

Slick Robotic System Makes UCSF's Pharmacy Safer and More Efficient

The pharmacy at UCSF Medical Center hands out something like 10,000 doses of medication per day. That's a lot of pills, and generally, it's the job of pharmacy workers to take care of all of the sorting and checking and bottling and double-checking. It's not just labor-intensive, it requires skill, and if you mess something up, you run the risk of killing someone.

With all this in mind, UCSF has invested in a team of robotic pharmacy workers which can handle prescriptions all the way from electronic orders from doctors and nurses to dispensing individual pills, arranged on a handy plastic ring in order of when they should be taken. Here's the whole system in action:

While the robotic system is obviously very efficient, efficiency is only a part of the benefit. It's easier to keep records. There's very little risk of contamination. Staff can now spend more time with patients. And mistakes with medication are few and far between. Or actually, that's an understatement, since the robots have a record of 350,000 successful medication preparations with zero screw-ups. Not bad!

The next step is to integrate the pharmacy robot with robots that can diagnose what's wrong with you and then administer medication, paving the way for robotic hospitals without a human staff. That may not be a good thing, but my guess is that it's probably an inevitability in either case.

[ UCSF ] via [ Engadget ]

Japan Earthquake: Robots Help Search For Survivors

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

quince japan earthquake rescue robot
Japan's earthquake will be a major test for search-and-rescue robots like Quince, developed by Chiba Institute of Technology roboticists, shown here during a demonstration.

Japan's leading experts in rescue robotics are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders in the search for survivors of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the country last Friday.

Details are still scarce, but I've gotten word that at least two teams plan to use their search and rescue robots, one team in Tokyo and another in or around Sendai, the city that suffered the most damage in the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami. I'm waiting confirmation about a third team, also in Tokyo. (There is no information about the presence of robots at Japan's troubled Fukushima nuclear power plants, though that would be an ideal application for teleoperated repair and inspection robots.)

Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, in College Station, and one of the world's top experts in rescue robotics, confirms that a team led by Satoshi Tadokoro of Tohoku University, in Sendai, and a team led by Eiji Koyanagi from Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Center, have deployed, or are about to deploy, their robots.

She reports that Dr. Tadokoro is "en route" to Sendai, where he lives, with the Active Scope Camera, a remote operated 8-meter-long snake-like robot that carries a scope camera and can slither through small spaces. According to Dr. Murphy, it's "possibly the most capable robot for tight spaces." At the same time, Dr. Koyanagi will use an agile robot called Quince, which has tank-like tracks and is capable of driving over rubble and climbing stairs, around his home area in Tokyo.

Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera:

Here's a video of Quince:

Dr. Murphy, an IEEE Fellow whose team has taken robots to disaster sites like the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 attacks and New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, tells me that robots have been used in at least one previous earthquake, the 2010 Haiti disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she says, used a SeaBotix underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, to investigate bridge and seawall damage as part of the U.S. assistance to the Haitian government.

For a disaster like the Japan quake, she says several types of robots could prove useful, including:

• small unmanned aerial vehicles like robotic helicopters and quadrotors for inspection of upper levels of buildings and lower altitude checks
• snake robots capable of entering collapsed buildings and slithering through rubble
• small underwater ROVs for bridge inspection and underwater recovery
• tether-based unmanned ground vehicles like sensor-packed wheeled robots that operators can drive remotely to search for survivors

As it happened, Japan's leading rescue robotics experts, a cadre led by Dr. Tadokoro, who heads the International Rescue Systems Institute, were actually in the United States when the earthquake hit! The 21 faculty and students and their rescue robots were in Texas participating in an exercise and workshop that CRASAR organized. The group headed back to Japan on Friday as soon as they heard the news.

Dr. Murphy, who leads the volunteer search-and-rescue robotics group Roboticists Without Borders, part of CRASAR, says the Japanese welcomed her group's assistance; she's now on standby awaiting a formal request. CRASAR's robotic arsenal includes the AirRobot and iSensys helicopters, a VideoRay ROV for underwater inspection, a AEOS water vehicle with a sonar suited for bridge inspection, and several ground robots like the Inuktun VGTV, a tracked vehicle that can change its shape.

Active Scope Camera japan earthquake robotLike most search and rescue robots, the systems the Japanese are deploying are designed to go where humans can't easily reach. According to a 2007 paper, the Active Scope Camera is a snake-type of robot whose body is covered by "cilia," small filaments that vibrate, allowing the robot to crawl at a speed of 4.7 centimeters per second, climb over obstacles, follow walls, and make turns in tight spaces.

Quince is a mobile robot equipped with four sets of tracked wheels, some of which can move up and down to allow the robot to negotiate obstacles. It carries cameras as well as infrared and carbon-dioxide sensors for detecting the presence of survivors trapped under rubble.

Our thoughts go to the Japanese people affected by this tragedy. We hope emergency personnel can locate all survivors as fast as possible -- and if robots can help, great.

Image: Chiba Institute of Technology; videos: DigInfo and Chiba Institute of Technology

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