Toshiba Unveils Robot for Disaster Response

Is this Japan's answer to BigDog?

2 min read
Toshiba Unveils Robot for Disaster Response

Toshiba Quadruped Robot for Disaster Response

Robots played a key role in assessing damage and radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, crippled by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan more than a year ago. But so far all the robots relied on tracks to navigate inside the reactors, in addition to aerial vehicles used to observe the site from above. None of the robots had legs. Now Toshiba is about to change that. The company announced yesterday that it plans to send a quadruped robot to the disaster site. Is this Japan's answer to BigDog?

The remote-controlled, radiation-resistant quadruped has multiple cameras and carries a dosimeter. Its legs are powered by electric motors (unlike BigDog and HyQ, two quadrupeds that use hydraulics). One news outlet said the robot resembled a "headless dog." Another described the robot as "an ice cooler on wobbly metal legs." Well, I sure would love to have a robotic ice cooler like that. From the photo above, it's a cool-looking machine. But reports of the robot's first demonstration were less impressive. The robot slowly climbed a flight of just eight steps, taking about a minute to go up each step. And at one point, the robot stalled, and Toshiba engineers had to pick it up and reboot it. The company said the robot has also "a folding arm that can release a companion smaller robot," but details about that capability are scarce.

The Fukushima site and its surroundings are still highly contaminated, so it makes sense to send in more robots. But does it make sense to use a legged robot? From a research point of view, testing a new platform in a real environment could provide valuable insight. Some roboticists have long argued that legged machines could perform better than wheeled or tracked ones on difficult terrain. On the other hand, it's hard to see how the Toshiba quadruped, which from what we know is a prototype completed not long ago, could outperform an iRobot PackBot or Warrior, with years of real-world operation, or, for that matter, the Japanese ground robot Quince, which has a capable multi-track system. But let's not underestimate the Toshiba robo-dog. We look forward to seeing the company set it loose at the site. And then we'll be able to determine the winner: tracks or legs?

Here are the specs from Toshiba:

Weight: 65kg
Size: 624mm (L) x 587mm (W) x 1066mm (H)
Power Source: Battery
Battery time: 2 hours (continuous use)
Weight Capacity: 20kg
Walking Speed: 1km/h
Operation: Wireless remote control

Image: Toshiba

Via [ Toshiba ] and [ Gizmag ]

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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

“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.

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

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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