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Fukushima turns to robots to fix the future

New robotics are being developed to tackle a never-before-seen problem.

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James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
1 of 18 James Martin/CNET

The radiation levels inside the reactors at Fukushima are far too high for any human to stay there for more than a few minutes. Even an hour inside one of the reactors would mean certain death. 

A natural solution was to operate automated machines in these extreme places humans cannot go. But with few exceptions, most of the early robots proved to be worthless in tackling the nuclear meltdown inside Fukushima Daiichi. The conditions were too harsh, even for the available robots.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
2 of 18 James Martin/CNET

High gamma radiation levels scrambled the electrons within the semiconductors of the robots' brains, interfering and destroying electronics and damaging circuits.

It showed the cleanup can't use machines that are too sophisticated. Entire systems need to be reworked and engineered for this environment. It's a complex task that isn't going to happen overnight.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
3 of 18 James Martin/CNET

By fostering "innovation zones" focused on the development of robots and drones -- anchored by the research going into robots specifically designed for Daiichi -- local boosters are trying to create a sort of Silicon Valley for remote-controlled robotics. By necessity, a new era of robotics development has come to the region.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
4 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Just south of Fukushima, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency has set up the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology, a state-of-the-art facility intended to foster a new generation of robotics.

The plan is to open this space as an innovation incubator, offering companies, students and other researchers in Japan and abroad resources and a space to test out robots for nuclear decommissioning work.

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5 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Technicians in the Unit 2 Control Room at Fukushima Daiichi monitor and operate the robots as they explore the damaged Unit 2 reactor.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
6 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Overly complex autonomous robots would either shut down under the extreme conditions or get snared in the mangled wreckage of the damaged systems.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
7 of 18 James Martin/CNET

These are controllers for a few of the robots used in the Fukushima Daiichi reactor decommissioning.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
8 of 18 James Martin/CNET

The "Kobra" robot from Endeavor Robotics, seen here, has a lift capacity of 330 lbs and is designed to climb stairs and fit through doorways.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
9 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Home to SoftBank's Pepper, the now-defunct Asimo from Honda and Sony's smart dog Aibo, Japan has a long cultural connection with automation. 

Robots have contributed to emergency rescue and restoration operations for more than two decades. There seemed like no better place to mount a robot-led survey and cleanup mission.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
10 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Endeavor Robotics' PackBot surveillance and reconnaissance robot climbs slopes and stairs up to 45 degrees and is submersible in 3 feet of water.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
11 of 18 James Martin/CNET

These are robot warehouse parts preparing for deployment into the reactors at Fukushima.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
12 of 18 James Martin/CNET

The first Japanese robot employed at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was from Chiba Institute of Technology, with work beginning quickly following the accident. The robot was developed specifically for use inside Fukushima Daiichi with its radiation resistance, heat and shock resistance, and the ability to climb a gradient above 60 degrees.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
13 of 18 James Martin/CNET

iRobot, founded in Bedford, Massachusetts, has developed many of the robots being used at Fukushima. Exploring the extreme environments inside the reactors, with radiation levels upward of 49 millisieverts per hour.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
14 of 18 James Martin/CNET

This is iRobot's 710 Warrior equipped with the HAZMAT package. It has an array of sensors that can detect conditions inside the reactors, and can measure radioactivity and the presence of hazardous chemicals.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
15 of 18 James Martin/CNET

Robots aren't seen as just an answer to cleaning up Fukushima Daiichi -- local officials are betting on them as a possible salvation for Fukushima, the third-largest prefecture in Japan, and an area that has struggled to fight the lingering connection with the words "nuclear disaster."

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
16 of 18 James Martin/CNET

At the Japan Atomic Energy Agency's Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology, researchers are developing the next generation of robotics to be used in Fukushima operations.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
17 of 18 James Martin/CNET

A Panasonic robot undergoing development and testing at the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology in Naraha, Japan.

The robots going inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
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Drones being tested at the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology in Naraha, Japan.

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