Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.
After Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami in March, U.S. firm iRobot sent four of its rugged, tank-like robots to help with recovery operations at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
It seems iRobot should have sent some Roomba vacuuming bots as well.
Last week, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant's operator, said it was improvising a robotic vacuum cleaner to remove radioactive dirt from the reactors.
TEPCO built the system by taking an industrial-grade vacuum and attaching its business end to the manipulator arm of a Warrior, iRobot's strongest mobile robot. By remote controlling the bot from a safe distance, workers planned to clean up radioactive debris and sand, which collected on the floor when the tsunami flooded the plant.
Watch the Warrior entering Reactor No. 3 and doing some vacuuming:
In April, TEPCO sent two PackBot robots, also made by iRobot, into some of the reactors. The robots measured high levels of radiation and captured dramatic footage of the damaged facilities. The company has also relied on robotic drones and remote-controlled construction machines. But this is the first time TEPCO uses robots to assist with removal of radioactive debris inside the reactors.
The goal of the cleanup, TEPCO said, was to "reduce the radiation exposure" of workers, who might have to go near or into the reactors to perform repairs and other work. Did it work? I haven't seen any details, but will report back if I find out whether the work helped to reduce radiation levels.
See below details of the operation [click image to enlarge].
Images and video: TEPCO
Updated July 8, 2011 10:07 a.m.
Erico Guizzo is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. He has written stories on a wide range of science and technology topics, including Japanese androids, French computer codes, Icelandic video games, American crash-test dummies, and Canadian bacteria. His main area of interest is robotics, and he has written and edited hundreds of articles and videos featuring the latest advances in this field. He is also the cocreator of Spectrum’s critically acclaimed Robots for iPad app. For his robotics coverage, Guizzo has won four Neal Awards and has been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards. An IEEE member, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of São Paulo, in his native Brazil, and a master’s in science writing from MIT.