AI News, Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?

Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?

To make things worse, the earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent fires and explosions, may have damaged the reactor vessels, spent-fuel pools, and cooling and control systems, as well as the buildings that house them.

DennisHong, a roboticist at Virginia Tech, says researchers are constantly developing new ways of traversing difficult terrain -- using wheels, legs, tracks, wheel-leg hybrids, and other approaches -- but still, 'a site like these reactors, where debris is scattered with tangled steel beams and collapsed structures, is a very, very challenging environment.'

But there exist countless other obstacles -- as simple as a closed door, for example -- that could be hard for most mobile robots to overcome,says Henrik Christensen, a professor of robotics at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta.

The biggest one is radiation, which can damage microchips and sensors, and also corrupt data (bits) in semiconductors [read 'Radiation Hardening 101: How To Protect Nuclear Reactor Electronics' to understand why radiation damages electronics].

The result is that if you try to build a robot that can overcome all the challenges described above (mobility, communication, radiation), you'll end up with a machine that is big and slow, as Dr. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas AM University, in College Station, explains:

So in some sense you need a dinosaur robot -- big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors) -- and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important…You don’t know how long you’ve got.

In the end, even if the robots can survive the radiation and reach the right places, they'd have to be capable of performing complex tasks like opening and closing valves, activating pumps, or handling hoses to deliver the cooling water.

The problem is that there are no commercial or research robots designed to carry out a mission like that.Any attempt involving robots would require a lot of improvisation, and this being a nuclear crisis, and this being Japan, authorities will probably be very conservative in their actions.

Developed by the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute after a nuclear accident at a fuel processing facility in Tokai in 1999, the tank-like robot is 1.5 meters tall and weighs in at 600 kilograms.

Tadokoro adds that if it becomes necessary to spray more water on the reactors from the outside, and if using manned trucks is too dangerous for a human crew, Japan has developed several firefighting robots that could shoot water on the buildings.

Japan has sent out a request for more robots to the international community.The Japanese authorities apparently plan to use robots for gaining visual access of areas near the reactors and removing rubble and other clean-up operations.

'I am very surprised they have not used this option to provide better live footage from the site,' Christensen says.'UAVs could be used to generate information from close range without risking lives.'

Dr. Gerd Hirzinger, director of theInstitute of Robotics and Mechatronics, part ofDLR, the German Aerospace Center inWessling, says that in the 1960s, Germany did a lot of work on teleoperated manipulators for the nuclear power industry, but when plans for a central German reprocessing plant were suddenly killed in 1989 (the government decided to do reprocessing at a French plant), robot development stopped and roboticists shifted their focus to other areas.

In deepwater oil exploration, the tools used to assemble the riser pipes, wellheads, and other equipment are designed for the robotic hands of remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, not for human hands.

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