The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Another Robot to Enter Fukushima Reactor, and We Wish It Were Modular

A real-world use case where modular robots could be invaluable

2 min read
Another Robot to Enter Fukushima Reactor, and We Wish It Were Modular
Toshiba's robot, which will explore Fukushima's Unit 2 reactor next month, has a “scorpion” design, with a tail that moves up and down and carries a camera.
Image: Toshiba

The search is still on for the melted fuel that is, hopefully, sitting in a death puddle somewhere at the bottom of Fukushima’s damaged nuclear reactors. After two snake robots, designed by Hitachi, explored the Unit 1 reactor back in April (with one of the robots getting stuck), the next expedition goes to Toshiba, with a “scorpion” design that will enter Unit 2 at the end of August. Hopefully it’ll work, but what this situation really needs is a modular, reconfigurable robot. Here’s why.

In order to get down into the shattered interior of the Unit 2 reactor, where an interior detonation is thought to have caused severe damage, robots must be fed through a narrow duct and even go over a gap between two platforms. To do that, a robot by necessity must be long and skinny, hence Hitachi’s snake design. Toshiba’s robot, designed in collaboration with Japan’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), is trying something slightly different, with a liftable tail that it can bring up and around over its body:

The robot is 54 centimeters long, and is radiation hardened to be able to operate inside the reactor for at least 10 hours.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this design, but it seems clear that its adaptability is severely limited, because of the constraints imposed by the entry point. Those tracks, for example, don’t look like they’d be very good at dealing with much in the way of debris, but there’s simply not enough room to make them significantly bigger or more robust. And although the robot has been radiation hardened, when an important component gets fried (and an important component will, eventually, get fried), it’s done.

Thirteen years ago, Mark Yim, Ying Zhang, and David Duff wrote an article for us about the advantages of modular, reconfigurable, adaptable robots. Modular robotics has been hypothetically useful for decaudes, but this, right here, is a real-world use case where modular robots could be invaluable. This is the moment where all those “this robot could potentially be used in disaster areas” rationalizations that you find in grant proposals or at the ends of papers might actually pay off: a situation in which a robot that can disassemble into pieces, or adaptively reconfigure itself on the fly, could be better and faster than any traditional design. Plus, you’ve got an extraordinarily harsh environment, where radiation will start causing your robot serious problems in a matter of hours, in which case having the ability to adapt—by changing shape or behavior to deal with a damaged components, for example—could significantly extend the useful life of your robot.

To be sure, there’s an enormous amount of work that would have to be done to transition modular or adaptive robots from research into real world applications. So at this point, it’s unrealistic to make any sort of demand on a technology that’s still under active development. But it would be great to have something to point to and say, “See? You know all that crazy robot research? This is why it’s important.”

[ Toshiba ] via [ AP ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less