A 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.
The 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 tsunami.
Standing 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.
The 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.
Immediately 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.
Vaida 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.
While 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).
Remarkably, 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."
While 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.
So 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 them.
At 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.