After the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear power disaster, the Japanese government was embarrassed to have to ask for robots from other countries to help assess the damage. Japan is well known for its advances in robot technology, but not for these types of applications.
Now Toshiba has designed and built a four-legged robot to conduct investigative and recovery work in a number of locations that are too dangerous for humans, such as the reactor buildings of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 1 nuclear plant.
Though the country's Future Robotics Technology Center (fuRO) at the Chiba Institute of Technology has conducted R&D for two generations of search-and-rescue robotics, none of its robots could be deployed at the time of the disaster inside the reactor with its very high radiation levels. Rescue robots were sent over from the US and other countries. Most notably, iRobot's 510 PackBot was the first robot to enter the damaged Fukushima reactor, and it provided the initial glimpses inside those buildings after the disaster.
Toshiba has designed and built a four-legged robot to conduct investigative and recovery work in locations too dangerous for humans, including the reactor buildings of the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 1 nuclear plant. (Source: Toshiba)
Since then, the Japanese government has been testing several robotic technologies that will help with future disasters. These technologies may be able to help with the attempts to assess damage in the disabled Fukushima reactor buildings. We've reported on the Sakura fuRO robot, which is designed to explore the basement areas of the reactor (where cooling water leaks are suspected) and collect information on the damage. This robot, which runs on tank-like treads, was designed to be especially adept at negotiating stairs and ramps.
Toshiba's remote-controlled robot has four segmented, jointed legs. The joints are controlled by a dedicated movement algorithm that lets the robot avoid obstacles, climb stairs, and navigate uneven surfaces such as rubble-strewn floors. The company said in a press release that the design will give the robot "access into areas that is challenging to be reached by wheeled robots or crawlers."
The short video below shows the tetrapod walking on a flat surface, climbing stairs, and detaching its secondary camera. The movement of the limbs is reminiscent of the Big Dog and other robots built by Boston Dynamics to emulate animal movement. Overall, the robot looks to be a lot less stable than the much smaller Sakura fuRO, with its lower center of gravity and treads.
The new robot integrates a camera and dosimeter, as well as a folding arm designed to release the secondary camera, which is mounted on a smaller companion robot. The smaller bot (which remains connected by cable to the main robot) is launched from the main tetrapod so it can take pictures of places that the main robot cannot enter, such as tubes, narrow passageways, or areas with large chunks of rubble.
The main robot weighs 65kg (143.3lb) and measures 624mm (24.5 inches) long by 587mm (23.1 inches) wide by 1066mm (41.9 inches) high. It has a walking speed of 1km/hour (0.62mph). The detachable secondary robot/camera weighs 2kg (4.4lb) and measures 313mm (12.3 inches) long by 327mm (12.8 inches) wide by 47mm (1.8 inches) high. It moves at a speed of 200m/hour (0.12mph).
Toshiba said in the release that it "will continue research and development on capabilities and operation of the robot so as to enable it to position and install shielding, stop flows of water and remove obstacles."
Sending robots in to a still smoldering nuclear power plant for damage assessment is a great idea. It's what they were built for, however when it comes to repairing the damage and cleaning up the aftermath will fall to humans. I find it incredibly amazing that the elderly in that region have volunteered to go in on what can only be termed as a 'suicide missions' to repair the ailing reactors.
TJ, that's an intriguing idea. But the rad-hard ability is a big, big factor, due to extremely high radiation levels inside the damaged plant. Quad copters, at least presently, aren't very rugged compared to UGVs, which already have a lot of generations of development behind them in the military.
Lou, I agree. Then reasons appear to be that, until this disaster Japan's robot development hadn't been aimed at this type of device, but in other directions, such as towards the consumer sector and humanoid forms.
Always in disaster do we see innovation and development. Some could argue that no one could envision the need for such a bot before the disaster, not it is an industry. Take a look at what came from World War II, More innovation than I have time today to write.
Despite how technologically advance the Japanese are, or were, perhaps they are looking elsewhere for inspiration and new ideas.
Additionally, I wonder if they're thinking too conventionally. A quad-copter is a self-stabilizing platform with cameras, one that can move around precisely without having to deal with stairs. It's off-the-shelf hardware that is quite inexpensive. It's not radiation-hardened, but they can purchase an awful lot of them and get quick inspection results.
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