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Robots Enter Fukushima Reactors, Detect High Radiation

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

iRobot PackBot robots at Fukushima

UPDATE 4/20: Watch videos of the PackBots inside the reactors.

The Associated Press is reporting that two PackBot ground robots from iRobot have entered Unit 1 and Unit 3 of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant and performed readings of temperature, oxygen levels, and radioactivity.

The data from the robots, the first measurements inside the reactors in more than a month since a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, revealed high levels of radioactivity -- too high for humans to access the facilities.

The remote-controlled robots entered the two reactors over the weekend. Details of the mission -- such as what areas of the reactors the robots inspected and from where they were operated -- are still scarce, but Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant's operator, said that the robots opened and closed "double doors and conducted surveys of the situation" inside the buildings.

From the AP report:

The robots being used inside the plant are made by Bedford, Massachusetts, company iRobot. Traveling on miniature tank-like treads, the devices opened closed doors and explored the insides of the reactor buildings, coming back with radioactivity readings of up to 49 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 1 and up to 57 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 3.

The legal limit for nuclear workers was more than doubled since the crisis began to 250 millisieverts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends an evacuation after an incident releases 10 millisieverts of radiation, and workers in the U.S. nuclear industry are allowed an upper limit of 50 millisieverts per year. Doctors say radiation sickness sets in at 1,000 millisieverts and includes nausea and vomiting.

iRobot, which had sent two PackBot 510 robots and two Warrior 710 robots to Japan last month, was one of several organizations providing robotic help to the Japanese authorities. Known as a robotics superpower, Japan has relied on robots from other countries because its own machines haven't been as extensively tested as robots like the PackBots, widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

TEPCO officials said that the radiation data from the robots don't change their plans for shutting down the plant by the end of this year. And though more robots will be used, a TEPCO official, Takeshi Makigami, said that robots are limited in what they can do and eventually "people must enter the buildings."

Indeed, the Fukushima disaster is a major test for what robots can and cannot do, and some observers have criticized the fact that better, more advanced robots  aren't available to deal with this type of problem. Robots might be capable of navigating inside the reactors and assessing their environments, as the PackBots did, but they probably won't be able to perform major repairs and clean-up work -- just the kind of job we'd expect robots to do.

UPDATE 4/18: The AP has filed another report with more details, but some of the new details are confusing. Though the AP reported previously that the robots made measurements inside Unit 3, the new report quotes TEPCO officials saying that the robot "was impeded by broken chunks of ceiling and walls blown off during hydrogen blasts." So where does the Unit 3 radioactivity data come from?

Then there's this:

TEPCO spokesman Shogo Fukuda said the company has only now begun using the robots because it took several weeks for crews to learn how to operate the complex devices.

It's puzzling that in the midst of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, TEPCO decided to spend so much time training their workers to operate the PackBots. I'd think that there are qualified PackBot operators for hire, from iRobot or other company, which means the robots could have gone inside weeks ago. Isn't time a crucial issue in this disaster?

But there's more:

So far, just one of the two provided PackBots has been used, said Minoru Ogoda, an official with Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which is monitoring TEPCO's remediation efforts.

Hmm. Look at the photos (especially this one) and you can clearly see that there are two robots there, and they look very similar, so how is it possible that just one of two PackBots has been used? Either this TEPCO spokesman is confused or there's something lost in translation.

And more:

TEPCO spokesman Shogo Fukuda said the company hadn't anticipated using robots in the power plant until they were offered by iRobot.

Very strange that a company the size of TEPCO didn't think of using robots following the disaster and that, rather than seeking help with robots, it had to wait until robots were offered to them. Again, either this spokesman is misinformed or this report is inaccurate. Otherwise this would mean a huge lack of judgement on TEPCO's part for not seeking robots faster when this disaster hit.

What do you think?

More images:

Packbot working inside Unit 3 (photos taken 17 April 2011)

iRobot PackBot robots at Fukushima

iRobot PackBot robots at Fukushima

UPDATE 4/18: The robots have entered Unit 2 as well, and TEPCO has released new photos of the robot and what it found inside the buildings.

1st Floor, Unit 1 (photo taken 17 April 2011)

irobot packbot fukushima nuclear reactor

1st Floor, Unit 2 (photo taken 18 April 2011)

irobot packbot fukushima nuclear reactor

1st Floor, Unit 3 (photo taken 17 April 2011)

irobot packbot fukushima nuclear reactor

Images: TEPCO

READ ALSO:

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Wed, April 20, 2011

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Wed, April 20, 2011

Blog Post: Video and photos taken by a Honeywell T-Hawk micro air vehicle show damage with unprecedented detail

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?
Tue, March 22, 2011

Blog Post: It's too dangerous for humans to enter the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant. Why not send in robots?

iRobot Sending Packbots and Warriors to Fukushima Plant
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: A group of iRobot employees is on their way to Japan along with specially equipped Packbots and Warriors

Chinese Quadruped Robot Takes Its First Steps

frog china quadruped robot

Is this China's answer to BigDog?

Not quite. This is FROG, or Four-legged Robot for Optimal Gait, a quadruped developed by Dr. Wei Wang's team at the Institute of Automation, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing.

FROG is a research platform that Dr. Wang and his PhD students use to develop and test quadruped gait control, gait transition, and other locomotion algorithms. Unlike Boston Dynamics' BigDog, which can walk at a fast pace alongside humans, FROG is a slower-moving machine, a prototype for what Dr. Wang hopes will be the endoskeleton of a robotic triceratops.

"I hope it can find entertainment applications in dinosaur museums or expos," he tells me.

FROG-I, the group's first version, is about 1 meter tall, weighs in at 55 kilograms, and uses DC motors. Each leg has two motors, one on the hip and another on the knee -- so 8 actuated degrees of freedom in total. The robot also has one passive compliant prismatic DOF at each toe. Sensing devices include joint angle sensors, 3-axis acceleration sensor, 3-axis gyro sensor, foot-ground contact sensors, and ultrasonic sensors. The robot also carries a pan-tilt camera.

An on-board computer running real-time Linux performs sensing and actuator control, and communicates with a host computer through a wireless connection. The control mode relies on position control and current control. Power comes through a tether.

frog china quadruped robot dinosaurDr. Wang says he decided to build FROG for two reasons. First, because a year ago he received a triceratops sculpture from a Chinese film director, who had recently worked on a computer animated movie about dinosaurs and suggested that Dr. Wang should design a walking triceratops robot. The second reason is that Dr. Wang's daughter and her kindergarten friends are constantly asking him to built robotic animals.

I ask Dr. Wang if he plans to make the robot capable of moving faster -- and then perhaps challenge BigDog for a race?

"BigDog is marvelous," he says. "BigDog is hydraulic and our robot uses DC motors -- I don't think our robot could have so high capabilities."

But he adds that this is "only preliminary research" and his group plans to improve FROG if they have enough resources in the future. So who knows -- maybe Dr. Wang's daughter will ask him to build a Velociraptor next time?

Images and video: Institute of Automation/Chinese Academy of Sciences

SRI Shows New 'Taurus' Bomb-Defusing Prototype at Stanford Robot Block Party

The fundamental technology behind the da Vinci Surgical System was originally developed at SRI International, and it's not like they've been sitting around building thumb-twiddling robots since then. Well, not entirely, anyway. This is Taurus, a little manipulator robot that was unveiled to the public for the first time at the National Robotics Week Robot Block Party at Stanford's VAIL automotive research lab.

When I say Taurus is little, it's because the robot was specifically designed to fold itself into a box shape that's a mere 14" wide and 5" tall [36 cm wide and 13 cm tall]. It needs to be so compact because of what its job is: Taurus is meant to be shoved into small spaces in vehicles to detect and defeat vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. It doesn't have wheels or legs or anything like that; instead, it's intended to be mounted directly onto the robotic arm of a Talon or a PackBot, which is an innovative way to go.

This approach makes a lot of sense, because as we've seen, bomb disposal robots aren't always the most, er, graceful of machines. And obviously, this can be a problem when you're working with high explosives. Using Taurus, a bomb disposal technician can see whatever they need to see in high definition 3D, and using haptic feedback gloves, clip the red wire (or the blue wire! no! the red wire!) while remaining at a safe distance. This system works well enough that users even forget that they're working via a robot.

Taurus is a prototype in active development, and systems should be in the field as early as this summer, for a cheap enough price that they should be affordable for people besides the military.

Also on display was SRI's magical wall-climbing robot that manages to stick to anything you want it to stick to using static electricity. Its plastic and carbon tread can generate an electrostatic charge even in non-conductive materials, and the robot then sticks on in the same way that rubbing a balloon against your hair causes it to stick to your head. This works on surfaces that are smooth or rough or covered with dust, and SRI's robots are currently being used in Japan to inspect buildings.

[ SRI International ]

CITEC Unveils HECTOR, the Stick Insect Hexapod

HECTOR is the University of Bielefeld's newest robot, so new in fact that it doesn't even totally work yet, which both exciting and slightly disappointing at the same time. HECTOR stands for 'hexapod cognitive autonomously operating robot,' and it's based on everybody's favorite stick-like insect, a stick insect. It's got a lightweight but strong exoskeleton, along with six legs with innovative joint drive systems that are intended to work just as smoothly as muscles do:

Each of these highly integrated drives is equipped with all the necessary sensors, the complete control electronics with its own processor as well as a sensorised elastic coupling for which a patent has been applied. This makes it possible to control each of the 18 leg joints on the basis of biologically inspired control algorithms and, for example, react by yielding during collisions or interactions with human beings.

An interdisciplinary partnership between a group researching the mechatronics of biomimetic actuators and the Department of Biological Cybernetics, HECTOR still has a ways to go before it's autonomously skittering around. That said, the tricky bits, the legs, look to be at least in the functional prototype stage, as you can see in the vid:

When completed, HECTOR will be one meter long and able to carry payloads of up to 30kg, including customized interchangeable sensor systems.

[ CITEC ]

Finally, a Robot That Can Punch You in the Face

I guess not being punched is just not good enough for some people, so an Australian structural engineer named Kris Tressider has built himself a robot to fight with. It may be powered by windshield wiper motors, but in no way stops it from flailing about in a threatening manner. See for yourself: 

The robot can be adjusted in innumerable different ways, and it's not just repeating the same motions over again: it randomly throws both jabs and hooks at different speeds and from slightly different directions. And there's also this:

"A third electric motor can then be engaged via an opposing cam cable device to become berserk."

Berserk.

An indestructible punching robot with a berserk mode. What, besides a major motion picture, could possibly go wrong?

Kris hopes to turn Punching Pro into an actual product that you can buy and hide in the closet of whoever needs a good old-fashioned throttling; the target price is somewhere just under $1,000.

[ Punching Pro ] via [ Gizmag ]

X-47B Robot Aircraft Will Do It All With a Mouse Click

All those Predators and Reapers flying around in Afghanistan and elsewhere may be called "unmanned drones," but they're human-in-the-loop systems, reliant (more or less) on a human pilot in a trailer somewhere. While they often have the capacity to return to a specific point if contact is lost, it doesn't always go well, and sometimes it goes very badly.

The Navy is looking to give their X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) much more autonomous capability, to the point where the aircraft is entirely controllable with mouse clicks, even by someone who has no idea how to fly a plane:

Put the phrase “remotely piloted” out of your mind, says Janis Pamiljans, a Northrop vice president who handles the company’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) portfolio. When it gets on board an aircraft carrier, it’s going to be controlled by a “mouse click,” Pamiljans says. The click of a mouse will turn on the engines. Another will get it to taxi. Keep clicking, and the plane will “take off and come home.”

Autonomous capability won't just make the UCAS easier to use, it'll also make it much more reliable, by being able to take advantage of skills like these that no human can possibly hope to match.

By 2014, the robotic aircraft will be all checked out on carrier landings and mid-air refueling. Although it's specifically designed for combat (with a stealthy profile and 2000 kg weapons payload), Northrop isn't committing itself as to whether the 100% autonomous flights will also include 100% autonomous weapon releases. That kind of thing tends to make people awfully nervous, but really, it's not significantly different than launching a cruise missile, which is itself an armed flying robot, albeit a slightly more suicidal one.

The X-47B had its first flight in February, and has apparently had enough time since then to turn the event into a passably hip music video:

[ X-47B ] Via [ Danger Room ]

Boy Scouts Get New Robotics Merit Badge

The Boy Scouts have been around for long enough that they still have merit badges for things like basket weaving, but as a forward-looking organization, they've adapted by dropping (say) the rabbit raising badge and implementing badges for slightly more relevant skills like, you guessed it, robotics! The new robotics merit badge, pictured above, will be awarded to scouts who design, build, and demonstrate a robot of their own creation.

Ken Berry, assistant director of the Science and Engineering Education Center at the University of Texas at Dallas, helped make the badge possible, and expects at least 10,000 scouts (out of the 2.7 million scouts in the US) to qualify for the badge next year. 

"There's a low floor and a high ceiling with regard to robotics," [Berry] said. "It's very easy to get into, and you can go a long, long way."

While that's true in principle, I don't necessarily agree in practice. Since robotics isn't generally taught in elementary and middle school, or even high school here in the U.S., it can be a tough thing to get an introduction to, and even tougher to find a support system for. That's why it's especially good for an organization like the Boy Scouts to step up and tackle robotics head-on with a sexy new merit badge featuring one of our favorite Mars rovers, as long as they're prepared to back it up with resources when necessary.

[ NASA ] via [ NPR ]

Next Weekend: RoboGames

If you're within 20,000 kilometers* of San Mateo, you owe it to yourself, your parents, your kids, and everyone else you know to come to RoboGames. I mean, let's face it, if you're reading this blog you have at least a passing interest in robots, and if you have at least a passing interest in robots, how could you not have a fantastic time at what is officially the world's largest robot competition. And besides, RoboGames this year will be hosted by Mythbuster extraordinaire Grant Imahara, who knows a thing or two about robots himself.

This year, you can expect to see 600 competitors and their robots participating in nearly 70 different events, from bot hockey to MechWars to autonomous firefighting to heavyweight combat between 220-pound juggernauts. And there will be a lot of heavyweight combat... Organizers are expecting approximately 3.4 tons of robots in that one single event, although they probably won't all be in the arena at once. Sad.

Also, uh, there will be some people giving talks. People like me. And you wouldn't want to miss your chance to see a robot blogger's embarrassed mumbling live, would you?

RoboGames runs April 15-17 in San Mateo, CA. And guess what? Through April 13, Spectrum readers can get 20% off the ticket price by going here and using coupon code "Spectrum."

[ RoboGames 2011 ]

*If you happen to be located approximately 1,700 km off the southeast coast of Madagascar, we'll cut you some slack this year. Otherwise, you're totally close enough to make it.

JPL Animation Shows Off New Mars Rover's Harrowing Travel Plan

This video shows how the Mars Science Laboratory rover (aka "Curiosity") is planning to get from here to the surface of Mars. Since MSL is too large for airbags and Mars doesn't have enough atmosphere for a parachute to do the whole job, the only option is a rocket-assisted landing. The "sky-crane" system in the video above has never been used for a mission before, and I can't even imagine how agonizing it's going to be waiting to find out whether everything went successfully when touchdown happens in August of 2012.

Boing Boing recently had the chance to send a photographer to JPL to check out the more or less completed rover before it's sent of to Florida next month to prepare for its November launch. Here are a couple of my favorite pics:

Check out that beastly robotic arm and the friendly looking head. So cute!

That, uh, fetchingly ample rear end contains a radioisotope thermal electric generator, which is capable of producing power for a minimum of 14 years, which means MSL should still be wandering around by the time humans make it to Mars to personally congratulate the robot on doing such a bang-up job.

Swing by Boing Boing for the rest of the set, taken by photographer Joseph Linaschke.

[ Mars Science Laboratory ]

More Video Craziness With da Vinci Surgical Robots

Ever wondered just how surgeons (and grad students) train on da Vinci surgical robots? Apparently, here's how it works:

It's worth mentioning, I think, that had a human not been in the loop here, the robot could almost certainly gotten that wishbone out much, much faster. In fact, I personally challenge robots everywhere to perform the fastest flawless game of Operation ever and post it on YouTube. Aaaaand, GO!

Travis over at Hizook found a couple more da Vinci robot vids, too:

If you're wondering what the point of these videos are, well, besides being funny, the da Vinci systems (and robotic-assisted surgeries in general) are gaining popularity mostly just because they're cool. Such surgeries aren't always better for patients; although the incisions are significantly smaller, robot-assisted surgeries can take up to twice as long as conventional surgeries. There's also the several thousand dollar premium that patients (or their insurance companies) pay. Still, it's hard to beat the appeal of being operated on by a robot, apparently:

But now, patient after patient was walking away. They did not want [conventional] surgery. They wanted surgery by a robot, controlled by a physician not necessarily even in the operating room, face buried in a console, working the robot’s arms with remote controls.

“Patients interview you,” said Dr. Cadeddu, a urologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “They say: ‘Do you use the robot? O.K., well, thank you.’ ” And they leave.

But anyway, the point is that surgical robots are now sexy. They bring in business. And after you've just spent a couple million on your brand new surgical robot, more business is definitely what you're looking for, so putting up YouTube videos showcasing your new medical marvel is definitely a good idea.

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