PackBots originally designed to help U.S. troops are sent to Japan to survey damage to Fukushima nuclear plants. They discovered high radiation levels during the first entry into the plant devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
pair of 60-pound military robots originally designed for such tasks as
disarming bombs and combat zone surveillance have entered reactor buildings at
the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in Sendai, Japan.
PackBot robots, provided by iRobot, are
already reporting that the radiation levels in the power plants are too high
for humans to spend any significant time in the plants, according to a New York Times
report. The robots, outfitted with a set of sensors originally designed for
hazardous materials incidents, have entered reactors 1 and 3 of the plant,
which were damaged during the catastrophic March 11, 2011, earthquake and
by are a pair of much larger Warrior robots, also developed for the U.S.
military. These robots are capable of lifting loads of up to 200 pounds and can
be used inside the power plant to clear debris and to manipulate controls, open
doors and similar tasks. The PackBot robots are outfitted with the sensors,
plus high-definition cameras and a folding mast that can extend up to six feet.
These robots were demonstrated to eWEEK during an exclusive visit
to iRobot's labs.
robots turned up as a result of an extraordinary display of corporate
responsibility by iRobot. According to spokesman Charlie Vaida, iRobot
executives were in Singapore for a trade show when the quake happened in Japan.
Within hours those executives made the decision to provide the robots to help
with the rescue in the nuclear power plants. Engineers worked through the night
to outfit their military robots for this humanitarian mission and then shipped
them to Japan.
after the robots were shipped, a team of six engineers converged from
Singapore, California and Massachusetts to provide training. Meanwhile,
iRobot's distributor in Japan made contact with TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power
Company), the owner of the damaged plants, and arranged for training. Vaida
said in an interview with eWEEK that the training took two weeks, and that at
that point, the robots were turned over to the TEPCO employees for use in
helping with the power plant.
said TEPCO practiced with the robots for a few days and then on April 17 sent
them into the reactor buildings, first into reactor 3 and then reactor 1. The
first robots to enter were the PackBots because of their small size and their
wealth of sensors. In addition to radiation, the PackBots are able to measure
levels of oxygen, ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Their cameras are able
to show the conditions inside the plants and to survey the damage so that TEPCO
engineers will be able to make the best possible decisions on shutting the
plants down safely.
the PackBots and Warriors were originally designed for the U.S. military for
use in a variety of conflicts, the company has been marketing
them for other uses as well. This is not the first time iRobot has
dispatched its machines to survey disaster scenes. The robots were sent first
into New York's collapsed World Trade Center shortly after the terrorist
attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and again into the Gulf of Mexico to search for oil
after the BP well disaster (iRobot has a robot called the SeaGlider).
iRobot isn't making money off these efforts. In each case, the company provided
its robots, its expertise and its staff at no charge. "It was seeing a
situation where we thought we could help," Vaida said. "It's a unique
technology, and we're in a unique situation to help out."
iRobot is mainly known to the public for its Roomba home cleaning devices, it's
a huge player in the industrial and military robotics business. A tour of
iRobot's headquarters reveals letters from troops whose lives have been saved
by the company's robots, as well as the shattered remains of robots destroyed
performing tasks that would have otherwise put soldiers at risk. One of the
robots I saw included a series of hash marks indicating the number of bombs
successfully disarmed along with a note asking that the robot be repaired and
returned to the Army unit that depended on it.
once again in what might be highly unusual to some companies, iRobot has
stepped up to the task of using its machines to spare lives because if it
weren't for the robots traveling deeply into the radioactive hell that is the
Fukushima reactors, people would have to do it, and those people would
certainly be exposed to radiation levels that would sicken and perhaps kill
this point, it's too early to know exactly what the robots will accomplish, but
already they have penetrated deeply enough to know exactly how radioactive the
nuclear plants are and how long people with the proper protection can go inside
(about 5 hours, apparently), and perhaps they can help find a way to bring this
under control. At the very least, these robots are providing information that
can't be found safely any other way. At the best, they'll help find the ways to
finally neutralize this dangerous situation.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.