This Robot Submarine Inspects the Worst Pools Ever

Reactor pools are where no humans want to go for a swim, so we're sending robots instead

2 min read
This Robot Submarine Inspects the Worst Pools Ever
Photo: GE Hitachi

I’ve been swimming in a lot of weird places. Some of them have even been a little dangerous. But I would never, ever, ever go swimming inside of the core of a nuclear reactor, operating or otherwise. Neither would anyone else in their right mind, but it is the job of human inspectors to go out on catwalks over reactor vessels and dip long poles with cameras attached into the water to inspect the vessel’s interior to make sure that nothing evil is leaking out.

This is not a particularly safe nor fun activity, but you know who doesn’t care about safety or funness? Robots.

img Photo: GE Hitachi

GE Hitachi’s robot submarine, Stinger, is designed to swim around reactor pools for up to three weeks during maintenance or refueling periods. It’s about the size of a human, and is remotely operated by one, but the places it goes to clean an inspect, no human could survive.

Stinger carries cameras and also a hydrolaser, which in addition to sounding awesome (although it’s really just a high pressure water nozzle), can be used to clean welds as it inspects them, which is a Very Good and Important thing. The robot is clad in a “tungsten frock,” designed to reduce the amount of radiation that it is exposed to. Tungsten is more dense than lead (it’s just about as dense as gold), and was probably chosen because a frock made of platinum, while more effective, would make Singer both lovely looking and entirely unaffordable.

This is all fantastic, but it’s left me seriously concerned about spontaneous self-awareness followed by world domination. Seriously, what would happen if Stinger was going for a swim and this happened:

According to every superhero movie ever, this is how something either amazing or horrific happens, and I don’t think robots would be immune to either one. 

The video, by the way, is of a reactor pulse, which happens when control rods are rapidly removed from the nuclear core, which goes from idle (about 100 watts of output for the reactor in the video) to nearly a billion watts of output (!) and back down to idle again in something like 50 milliseconds. The bright blue flash is Cherenkov radiation, with charged particles from the reaction moving through the water faster than the speed of light (in water), exciting water molecules to emit a wave of blue photons. 

GE Hitachi says that Stinger is happily puttering around reactor pools performing inspections throughout the U.S. nuclear industry, and there was much rejoicing from all of the humans who don’t have to do that anymore.

[ Stinger ] via [ Engadget ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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