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Radiation-Proof Robot’s Terrifying Safety Demonstration

In 1962, the U.S. Air Force’s monster Beetle manipulator threatened budgets, sanity, and women

1 min read

Photo: Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Photo: Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1962, the U.S. Air Force Special Weapons Center demonstrated the capabilities of its 77-metric-ton robot, designed to let engineers interact safely with radioactive materials (if unsafely with women). Called “the Beetle” [PDF], this remote-handling vehicle was designed to work on the engines of nuclear-powered strategic bombers, which themselves never quite materialized [PDF]. The Beetle’s manipulators were reportedly dexterous enough to pick up an egg without instantly scrambling it, although we’re slightly concerned that the Air Force never released the next picture in this series.

Inside the Beetle’s claustrophobia-inducing cab, the human operator was shielded from radiation by 30-centimeter-thick walls of lead, according to a report in the May 1962 Popular Science. Nearly 3 metric tons of air conditioning was necessary to maintain a comfortable temperature; other perks for the driver included 8 hours of bottled oxygen and an ashtray. It took 640 kilometers of wiring to tie everything together. Despite the Beetle’s staggering US $1,500,000 price tag (or perhaps because of it), the robot spent almost all of its time broken.

Although the nuclear aircraft program was canceled in March 1961, the Air Force continued to plan for the next generation of radiation-hardened robots, which would be smaller, lighter, and operated without a human inside. Later it transferred the Beetle to NASA’s nuclear rocket program, but there too the robot proved too unreliable for continued use.

This article originally appeared in print as “Handle With Care (Or Not).”

Part of a continuing series looking at old photographs that embrace the boundless potential of technology, with unintentionally hilarious effect.

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