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Inspection orb bots could swim in nuclear pipes

Engineers say their egg-size bot could swim through nuclear plants, many of which are aging and threatening local groundwater.

The robot could save on inspection costs.

As the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan continues to leak radiation, engineers at MIT are devising a robot that could help limit contamination from nuclear facilities in the U.S.

The egg-size device, described in this paper for ICRA 2011 earlier this year, is being developed by MIT's Harry Asada and others.

The robot would swim through pipes, capturing images and checking for corrosion that could lead to contaminated groundwater. It's spherical without appendages so it doesn't snag on reactor plumbing parts.

Last month, an Associated Press investigation found that 48 sites in the U.S. had leaked radioactive tritium from corroded piping. None of the leaks is known to have hit public water supplies.

The robot would be built to withstand radiation for a certain period, but basically would be disposable. Propelled by a network of vales in its skin that channel water, the device's main function would be transmitting imagery in real time to remote operators.

Such inspections could save money when it comes to underground nuclear plant pipes, which are checked for damage with ultrasound or other means if they are checked at all.

Asada and colleagues have built a proof-of-concept device for the pipe swimmer and are now working on equipping it with a camera that can pan and tilt.

With half of all the reactors in the U.S. at least 30 years old, this little orb could prove very useful indeed.