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Lockheed Martin's Spybot Knows How Not to Be Seen

There are some basic rules that both humans and robots should be aware of when it comes to not being seen, and Monty Python only scratched blew up the surface. Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratory has been developing a robot designed to operate around humans without being detected, and not just by being small and quiet: it listens for humans, guesses where they might be looking, and then finds itself a nice dark hiding place when it needs to.

Lockheed's robot is equipped with a 3D laser scanner that allows it to build detailed maps of its surroundings. It also has an array of acoustic sensors, which allow it to localize footsteps and voices. It can then combine the locations of humans with its 3D map to guess what areas the humans might be able to see, and then does its best to stay hidden. Keeping to the shadows, the robot always maintains an escape route, and if it senses a human approaching, it will look for the deepest darkest corner it can find and then hold its virtual breath until the danger has passed.

This is certainly not the first deceptive robot we've seen. Given the opportunity, a robot swarm at EPFL independently evolved the capacity for deception alarmingly quickly in a competition for virtual food. And researchers from Georgia Tech taught a robot to use deliberately deceptive tactics to fool other robots and humans. The Georgia Tech research, especially, seems like it's destined for applications like surveillance, as it endows a robot with a method of analyzing a situation to determine whether deception would be effective, based on what it knows about the robot (or person) trying to find it. If it decides that deception would help it achieve its goals, the robot then leaves tracks in one direction before moving off in a different one.

The key to avoiding detection by humans is to understand how you're perceived by humans. As Monty Python so astutely pointed out, for example, even the most perfect hiding place won't do you any good if it's the only possible place that you can be. By building models of both physical environments and perceptual environments, or how humans sense and react to things, robots will be much better at not just spying, but also understanding and reacting to us in less adversarial environments.

[ Lockheed Martin ] via [ New Scientist ]

'Blinky' Short Film Now Online, Not Safe For Your Sanity

“Soon every home will have a robot helper. Don’t worry, your kids are perfectly safe.”

You know when you see a tag line like that on a movie poster, that your kids are going to be far, far from perfectly safe. Blinky, a short film from a company called Bad Robot Productions that we've been looking forward to since 2009, doesn't disappoint.

Directed by Ruairi Robinson (who's currently working on Akira), Blinky is very well done, although it definitely messes with your head. Personally, while I'm glad I watched it, I kinda don't think I'd want to watch it again. If you're up for it, Blinky is probably rated PG-13, so use your best judgment as to what that implies. You've been warned!

Via [ io9 ]

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?

japan fukushima radiation monitoring robotEditor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

When it comes to robots, Japan is a superpower, with some of the world's most advanced robotic systems and the highest levels of industrial automation. So it makes sense to ask: Why can't Japan use robots to fix the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant?

Many people have wondered about this possibility, and there's been a lot of speculation and confusion. One news report even slammed Japan for lacking nuclear-disaster robots.

I'd be the first to shout, "Send in the robots!" if it were clear that robots could help in this case. But things aren't that simple. To understand what robots can and cannot do at Fukushima, I spoke to several experts. Here's what they say.

Can Japan send robots into the reactors to repair them?

It'd be a difficult mission. To understand why, let's first take a quick look at the alarming situation at the Fukushima plant. One of the biggest problems is that the reactors and spent-fuel pools have lost -- and and may be continuing to lose -- cooling water. To make things worse, the earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent fires and explosions, may have damaged the reactor vessels, spent-fuel pools, and cooling and control systems, as well as the buildings that house them.

So if you wanted to send in robots, the first challenge is getting around inside the buildings. "The problem of mobility includes not only rough terrain but also gaps and obstacles," says Satoshi Tadokoro, an IEEE Fellow and professor of robotics at Tohoku University, in Sendai. "The path might have obstacles that a human could remove but most robots can't."

Dennis Hong, a roboticist at Virginia Tech, says researchers are constantly developing new ways of traversing difficult terrain -- using wheels, legs, tracks, wheel-leg hybrids, and other approaches -- but still, "a site like these reactors, where debris is scattered with tangled steel beams and collapsed structures, is a very, very challenging environment."

But what about robots designed for difficult terrain, like search-and-rescue robots and those bomb disposal robots used in Iraq and Afghanistan?

There are many robots capable of negotiating rough terrain, steep inclines, and even stairs. Indeed, as we've reported earlier, Japan might use these robots in rescue and recovery operations. But there exist countless other obstacles -- as simple as a closed door, for example -- that could be hard for most mobile robots to overcome, says Henrik Christensen, a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta. 

What's more, he says, the robots would have to be remote controlled by human operators, and communication is another challenge. Relying on wireless transmissions is tricky because the reactors have thick concrete walls and lots of metal around. An alternative would be using a tether, but the trade-off is you lose range and mobility. "Even with a fiber-optic tether it is very hard have a range longer than 2 kilometers, so they would have to deploy people to be close by to operate the vehicle," says Prof. Christensen.

What if the path inside the reactor is more or less clear for a robot -- what other challenges exist?

The biggest one is radiation, which can damage microchips and sensors, and also corrupt data (bits) in semiconductors [read "Radiation Hardening 101: How To Protect Nuclear Reactor Electronics" to understand why radiation damages electronics]. So if you'd want your robot to last long enough for a complex mission, it would need not only radiation-hardened electronics but also lots of heavy shielding.

The result is that if you try to build a robot that can overcome all the challenges described above (mobility, communication, radiation), you'll end up with a machine that is big and slow, as Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, in College Station, explains:

So in some sense you need a dinosaur robot -- big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors) -- and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important… You don’t know how long you’ve got. 

In the end, even if the robots can survive the radiation and reach the right places, they'd have to be capable of performing complex tasks like opening and closing valves, activating pumps, or handling hoses to deliver the cooling water.

The problem is that there are no commercial or research robots designed to carry out a mission like that. Any attempt involving robots would require a lot of improvisation, and this being a nuclear crisis, and this being Japan, authorities will probably be very conservative in their actions.

What about an agile humanoid robot that can walk on rubble, operate heavy machinery, and endure fires and radiation, Terminator-style?

You're watching too much TV. Even Japan, which has built the world's most advanced humanoid robots, doesn't have anything remotely close to that. Humanoid robots, despite their recent advances, are still research projects. They can walk, run, climb stairs, dance, and perform dexterous manipulations. But they can't fix nuclear reactors.

But there must be something robots can do at Fukushima?

There's plenty robots can do -- and are already doing. Perhaps the most important job at the moment is monitoring radiation. Dangerous levels of radiation prevent emergency personnel from accessing the buildings, so we need robots that act as our eyes in and around them. Only by gauging the damage can authorities devise effective plans to control the situation.

Prof. Tadokoro says there's already at least one robot on site equipped with cameras and sensors to measure gamma and neutron radiation [see photo above]. (The authorities are also measuring radiation with non-robotics methods, of course, on the ground and using airplanes and helicopters in Fukushima and elsewhere.)

Developed by the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute after a nuclear accident at a fuel processing facility in Tokai in 1999, the tank-like robot is 1.5 meters tall and weighs in at 600 kilograms. The robot moves at about 40 meters per minute and can operate at a distance of 1.1 km from its controller. Researchers designed this robot for several missions, including opening doors, turning valves, and drilling a hole on pipes. These capabilities could be useful inside the Fukushima reactors, but it all depends on whether the robot would be able to navigate inside treacherous spaces.

Tadokoro adds that if it becomes necessary to spray more water on the reactors from the outside, and if using manned trucks is too dangerous for a human crew, Japan has developed several firefighting robots that could shoot water on the buildings. The only problem is that these robots were not designed to withstand radiation, so they'd have to be fitted with shielding. He says it's not clear whether firefighting robots are present at Fukushima at this time.

Japan has sent out a request for more robots to the international community. The Japanese authorities apparently plan to use robots for gaining visual access of areas near the reactors and removing rubble and other clean-up operations. iRobot has sent PackBots and Warriors ground robots at Japan's request. France has apparently offered robots, too.

What about flying robots to peek inside the buildings?

Both Georgia Tech's Christensen and Virginia Tech's Hong suggest using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to generate imagery. "I am very surprised they have not used this option to provide better live footage from the site," Christensen says. "UAVs could be used to generate information from close range without risking lives."

The U.S. military has reportedly sent a Global Hawk drone to peek at the reactors from above, and there's talk of sending unmanned helicopters as well. But again, the Japanese authorities will probably be conservative in their choices, preferring not to fly a UAV that could crash and make things worse.

Robots fixed the BP oil leak in the Gulf. Why can't they do the same here? Does the nuclear industry use robots anyway?

The nuclear industry does use robots, and newer plants have higher levels of automation, but you won't see robots running around doing chores. Robots are typically used in reprocessing plants, where spent fuel is recycled. The robots are not really autonomous machines; they are teleoperated robotic arms to handle highly radioactive materials.

Dr. Gerd Hirzinger, director of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, part of DLR, the German Aerospace Center in Wessling, says that in the 1960s, Germany did a lot of work on teleoperated manipulators for the nuclear power industry, but when plans for a central German reprocessing plant were suddenly killed in 1989 (the government decided to do reprocessing at a French plant), robot development stopped and roboticists shifted their focus to other areas. "But I agree that we should have a mature and highly reliable teleoperation technology for all nuclear plants," he says.

In deepwater oil exploration, the tools used to assemble the riser pipes, wellheads, and other equipment are designed for the robotic hands of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, not for human hands. These underwater robots, in other words, act as telepresence systems for human operators. This approach never became part of the nuclear industry, though some argue it should. AI pioneer Marvin Minsky called for this type of technology more than 30 years ago:

Three Mile Island really needed telepresence. I am appalled by the nuclear industry's inability to deal with the unexpected. We all saw the absurd inflexibility of present day technology in handling the damage and making repairs to that reactor. [...] The big problem today is that nuclear plants are not designed for telepresence. Why? The technology is still too primitive. Furthermore, the plants aren't even designed to accommodate the installation of advanced telepresence when it becomes available. A vicious circle!

But people have used robots in other nuclear emergencies, no?

Yes. Carnegie Mellon roboticist William "Red" Whittaker developed ground robots that have been to the nuclear disaster sites at Three Mile Island, in the United States, and Chernobyl, in Ukraine. The robots helped by capturing images of the sites and monitoring radiation, but they couldn't do much more than that.  

Why did Japan have to ask foreign companies, like U.S. firm iRobot, to send robots rather than use some of their own?

Due to post-World War II regulations, Japanese robot makers can't export military robots. For this reason, Japanese robots haven't been tested in real conditions as extensively as U.S. robots like iRobot's PackBot and Foster-Miller's Talon, both used in Iraq and Afghanistan, have.

What's more, Japan's wireless regulation is very strict, limiting the power output of transmissions, even during emergencies, compared to what is allowed in the United States.

Will the nuclear industry invest in disaster robots now?

I hope so, but there's reason for skepticism. The nuclear industry never embraced robots like the auto industry or the oil and gas industry because it didn't make economical sense. Auto makers use robots because they help make cars cheaper; the oil industry uses ROVs because that's the only way they can get to deepwater reserves. The nuclear industry never had the incentive to adopt robots on the same scale.

Photo: Asahi Shimbun

READ ALSO:

iRobot Sending Packbots and Warriors to Fukushima Dai-1 Nuclear 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

More Robots to the Rescue
Fri, March 18, 2011

Blog Post: An underwater vehicle and another ground robot join the rescue and recovery operations

Global Hawk UAV May Be Able to Peek Inside Damaged Reactors
Thu, March 17, 2011

Blog Post: A Global Hawk UAV is scheduled to overfly the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear plant today, taking infrared images to attempt to determine what's happening inside the reactor buildings

Robots Help Search For Survivors
Sun, March 13, 2011

Blog Post: Japanese engineers are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders

Voice-Activated Robot Feeds You Your Desired Dish

meal assistive robot

Eating is a primary need, and many of us take it for granted. But what if the daily ritual of holding a fork, picking up food, and putting it in your mouth were impossible?

Last week, I came across a robot that detects the food on your plate and feeds you your desired dish. Here is a video:

This meal assistance system was developed by Isao Wakabayashi, an undergrad at Chukyo University, Japan. He used the Rascal robot set from Robix, and wrote his own image processing software to automatically recognize meal items. It labels all the pieces on your plate, so that you can use voice command to choose your next bite. "Pudding, please!"

Researchers are developing meal assistance robots like this for those unable to feed themselves, for example due to accident or illness. In fact, the Japanese company Secom has been selling their MySpoon robot for at least five years. Wakabayashi's work could have the ability to help this assistive technology become more automatic, user-friendly, and affordable.

In a world where robots are being used for work, play, and even war, hopefully these assistive robots can help us enjoy one of life's simple pleasures: eating.

You Definitely Need a Robotic Spy Vacuum

Before you dismiss this as just another Asian knockoff not-quite-a-Roomba, just take a minute to think about how the Samsung Tango View could change your life for the better. In addition to sporting a sophisticated visual mapping feature, the Tango is equipped with a camera, spotlights (!), and a microphone. It's Wi-Fi enabled, meaning that you can access the vacuum over the internet, and when you do, you're presented with a live view from the robot, complete with supplemental lighting and what could be two-way audio (although it's hard to tell). You can pilot it around manually, making sure that the oven is off, the fridge door is closed, and that nobody has broken into your house and stolen your fancy vacuum robot. You can also duct-tape a yardstick to it and use it to program your VCR while you're away. People still use VCRs, right?

The Tango vacuums quietly and effectively and stuff, so the possibilities for this robot (when it comes to cleanliness and surveillance) are virtually endless, but for whatever reason it's somehow incapable of vacuuming and spying at the same time.

One oft-overlooked aspect to the Tango is that it clearly hits it off with the ladies. We've seen several earlier models of this robot, each in bed (literally) with a different woman. These latest pics make it look like the robot has finally settled down with a family, though, so perhaps congratulations are in order... However, I've never really gotten the sense that the Tango could be happy with a long term commitment like that, and my guess is that we'll see an updated model in six months or so, with a new girlfriend to boot.

Samsung's Tango View (specifically the VC-RL87W) is available in Korea for about $700.

[ SamsungTomorrow ] via [ Akihabara News ]

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

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


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 ]

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