Fukushima disaster tests mettle of local robot makers
Friday, December 28, 2012 - 03:05
Dec. 28 - Despite being recognized as a world leader in robot design, Japan is playing catch-up to develop robots capable of dealing with the crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Authorities have has to rely on American made machines to assess the damage inside the reactors. But now the country's big three manufacturers are building their own versions of durable, remote-controlled robots for hazardous environments. Ben Gruber reports.
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STORY: This is 'Rosemary' - a new robot designed to clean up the radioactive waste at Japan's crippled nuclear power plant in Fukushima. The robot can transmit live video, lift up to 60 kilograms, and make its way through areas littered with debris. Rosemary was designed specifically to replace humans working inside the plant, where radiation levels are still dangerously high.
Rosemary is the first Japanese robot capable of working inside the power plant. Up until now, Japanese authorities have had to rely on American-made robots to survey and clean up the mess left after the March 2011 tsunami.
(SOUNDBITE) (Japanese) CHIBA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY FUTURE ROBOTICS TECHNOLOGY CENTER VICE DIRECTOR, EIJI KOYANAGI SAYING:
"Three thousand of America's Packbots were purchased by its military and the robot was used in the battlefield with soldiers training on it and because of that, it kept improving. But Japan's problem is that our robots don't actually get used."
That's Eiji Koyanagi, the vice director of Chiba Institute, the research firm that developed Rosemary. He says that even though his country is a leader in robotic innovation, when it comes to the dirty work of cleaning up radioactive waste - Japan has had to outsource robots.
For the past year, Japan's major industrial manufacturers, Mitsubishi, Hitachi and Toshiba have made a push to stop that trend and develop a new generation of robot workers.
Mitsubishi has recently unveiled a 440 kilogram robot called MEISTeR. The robot is armed with attachable tools suited for different missions inside the reactor. It can bore a hole in a concrete wall to test radiation levels and use its manipulator arm to shut or open valves and doors, a crucial task in a leaking nuclear reactor.
Mitsubishi's Jinichi Miyaguchi says the role of robots in Fukushima has changed from information gathering to actually replacing humans for manual tasks.
(SOUNDBITE) (Japanese) MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES NUCLEAR PLANT PRODUCTION DIVISION NUCLEAR ENERGY SYSTEMS GENERAL MANAGER, JINICHI MIYAGUCHI,SAYING:
"Since we know the situation on the ground, we will need to start work. We will need a different type of robot compared to the ones we have now to do this sort of work. That means, among other things, being able to carry heavy loads and such and we think the Meister is suited to accomplish this goal."
Hitachi has been developing a 2.5 ton robot crawler. It's equipped with excavator arms that can be fitted with claws, cutters and grips.
But critics say these new robots are taking too long to develop. Former nuclear power plant manager Masashi Goto says the biggest issue is a lack of communication between the manufacturer's and Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the leaking plants.
(SOUNDBITE) (Japanese) FORMER NUCLEAR POWER PLANT DESIGNER MASASHI GOTO SAYING:
"The manufacturers are assuming what the situation on the ground will be be. Things will change once the robots hit the ground so there will be a lot of trial and error every time they come up with a problem so this is a test-bed. I have a strong feeling that the manufacturers are doing it for the sake of experimentation at this stage."
Toshiba's four-legged robot designed to work inside the plant is proof that the technology faces hurdles. The robot locked up during a demonstration, a clear reminder that developing robots designed to replace manpower still has a long way to go.
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