by Andrew Rosthorn
Two British-designed robots crawled into the radioactive ruins of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station over the weekend of April 17, 2011, to start work in the hazardous debris of the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Experts from the North American arm of the defence technology group Qinetiq had flown into Tokyo to show engineers at the Tokyo Electric Power Company how to operate the company’s TALON robots with standard Xbox 360 computer game remote controllers.
Thousands of military TALON robots are at work with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army operates 3000 of the machines that were originally designed in the 1970s by the British Government’s now privatised Defence Evaluation and Research Agency for disarming IRA terrorist bombs in Northern Ireland.
In the horrific aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami QinetiQ North America donated a small fleet of unmanned vehicles with a training team and a number of their Robotic Appliqué kits for turning a standard Bobcat loading shovel into an unmanned remote-controlled machine in fifteen minutes. The kits will operate at least seventy of the usual Bobcat attachments, working as shovels, bucket loaders, grapples, tree cutters and deploying tools for breaking through walls and doors. The unmanned Bobcats include seven cameras, night vision, thermal imagers, microphones, two-way radio systems and radiation sensors, and can be operated from more than a mile away, removing rubble, digging up buried objects and carrying equipment.
QinetiQ North America also sent TEPCO two lightweight Dragon Runner robots, designed for investigating rubble piles, trenches, culverts and tunnels. Thermal cameras and sound sensors on the Dragon Runners deliver data to human controllers 800 metres away. At QinetiQ’s North American headquarters in Virginia, Technology Solutions Group President JD Crouch said, “We are honoured to have this opportunity to support Japan’s recovery efforts. Our unmanned vehicles will provide reliable, effective, first responder technology to help protect the brave men and women who are working to save lives and restore critical services.”
When the American Three Mile Island disaster of 1979 destroyed the core of a pressurised water reactor, leaving the reactor containment building inaccessible to humans, William "Red" Whittaker, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University gathered a team of students to build three robots for the inspection and clean up the basement of the damaged power station. The RAD Rover of 1983 was the first vehicle to enter the basement of Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the meltdown and worked for four years surveying and cleaning in a basement flooded with thousands of tonnes of water laced with radioactive caesium-137. The CoreSampler of 1984 drilled samples from the walls of the TMI-2 basement to determine the depth and severity of radioactive material that soaked into the concrete.
After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster another Red Whittaker team designed a robot known as Pioneer for mapping the most dangerous parts of the crumbling protective sarcophagus structure. The U.S. government, two universities, and several companies delivered Pioneer to Chernobyl equipped with three-dimensional vision, radiation detectors, a gripping arm and a bore for taking samples. The Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants in Ukraine has since developed robots to examine the remains of molten radioactive material in areas inside the sarcophagus with deadly radiation levels of 350 Roentgens per hour.
Whittaker and his firm RedZone Robotics have since developed robots to search for fallen meteorites in the ice fields of Antarctica, climb into the craters of active volcanoes in Alaska and Antarctica and explore the terrain of Mars. After the epic rescue of 18 miners from the flooded Quecreek coal mine in Pennsylvania, Whittaker and his colleague Scott Thayer built robots for mapping collapsed and abandoned mines.
After the 14 metre high tsunami wave wrecked the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Whittaker, now Fredkin Research Professor at Carnegie Mellon, told Geoff Brumfiel of Nature, “The building around Chernobyl, sometimes called the sarcophagus, was put together by remote cranes that would lift and lower beams and tilt up walls and by robots in the interior that would cut and dig. I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima.”
TALON robots cut their teeth on search and rescue in contaminated rubble at Ground Zero in the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York. Now they come equipped with CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) detection kits that can identify more than 7,500 environmental hazards including toxic industrial chemicals, volatile gases, radiation and explosive risks. They are man-portable robots, moving on small rubber crawler tracks and weighing less than 45 kg in basic configuration. They are famously durable and amphibious. Many have been rebuilt after detonating bombs. After one TALON fell from a bridge into a river in Iraq, soldiers managed to contact its control unit and command it to drive itself out of the river. TALON works from a joystick control with seven speed settings and a top speed of 6 feet / 1.8 metres per second and will climb stairs, cross through rubble and move in snow and water.
A third modified TALON robot has been sent to Japan from the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) equipped with radiation-hardened cameras, GPS navigation and extra sensors.
In March, a Japanese monitoring robot known as Red Monirobo became the first "non-human responder” to go to work inside Fukushima Daiichi. Red Monirobo was designed to operate at radiation levels too high for humans and deploy a manipulator arm for removing obstacles and collecting samples. Sensors include a radiation detector, 3D camera system and temperature and humidity sensors. Red Monirobo can work a kilometre from its controller and move at 2.4 kilometres per hour, despite weighing 600kg with heavy shielding to protect electronic instruments, especially cameras, from radiation.
Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Centre and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry developed Monirobo after the 1999 Tokaimura nuclear accident in which two workers died. Yellow Monirobo, with tools for collecting dust samples and sensors for flammable gas is also being deployed at Fukushima Daiichi.
The American iRobot firm sent four machines to Fukushima Daiichi, two Packbots and two new Warriors, supported by six engineers from the firm’s headquarters in Bedford, Massachusetts. Their Warrior, still only a prototype, can lift fire hose equipment or pieces of debris weighing 100kg. The tiny Packbots weigh only 10kg but can open doors, carry items of radioactive material with their three-link arm, climb 60 degree slopes and move at 9.3 km per hour.
On April 17, TEPCO released to Reuters pictures of a Packbot opening a door inside Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3, taking photographs and radiation samples before the attempt to achieve a "cold shutdown" in the next nine months.
Photograph main page: satelite image of the The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant