Fukushima turns to robots to fix the future
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.
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.
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.
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.
Technicians in the Unit 2 Control Room at Fukushima Daiichi monitor and operate the robots as they explore the damaged Unit 2 reactor.
Overly complex autonomous robots would either shut down under the extreme conditions or get snared in the mangled wreckage of the damaged systems.
These are controllers for a few of the robots used in the Fukushima Daiichi reactor decommissioning.
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.
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.
Endeavor Robotics' PackBot surveillance and reconnaissance robot climbs slopes and stairs up to 45 degrees and is submersible in 3 feet of water.
These are robot warehouse parts preparing for deployment into the reactors at Fukushima.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
A Panasonic robot undergoing development and testing at the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology in Naraha, Japan.
Drones being tested at the Naraha Center for Remote Control Technology in Naraha, Japan.