Toshiba shows four-legged robot for nuke disaster

Nov 21, 2012 by Yuri Kageyama
Toshiba Corp.'s nuclear inspection robot is set on stairs before climbing stairs during a demonstration at a Toshiba factory in Yokohama, west of Tokyo, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. The four-legged robot is designed to help at the meltdown-crippled Japanese nuclear plant, climbing over debris and venturing into radiated areas off-limits to human workers. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

Toshiba Corp. unveiled a robot Wednesday that the company says can withstand high radiation and help in nuclear disasters. But it remains unclear what exactly the new machine will be capable of doing if and when it gets the go-ahead to enter Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The four-legged robot can climb over debris and venture into radiated areas off-limits to human workers. One significant innovation, Toshiba said, is that its wireless network can be controlled in high radiation, automatically seeking better transmission when reception becomes weak.

But the machine, which looks like an ice cooler on wobbly metal legs, also appears prone to glitches. The robot took a jerky misstep during a demonstration to reporters, freezing with one leg up in the air. It had to be lifted by several people and rebooted.

The robot was also notably slow in climbing a flight of eight steps, cautiously lifting its legs one by one, and taking about a minute to go up each step.

With obstacles that aren't as even and predictable as steps, such as the debris at the plant, it may need as much as 10 minutes to figure out how to clear the object, Toshiba acknowledged.

And if it ever falls, it will not be able to get up on its own.

Still, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it might use the robot to inspect the suppression chamber of the Fukushima plant, where a devastating meltdown took place after a mammoth tsunami slammed into northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

Toshiba began developing the robot after the disaster with hopes it would prove useful in helping to decommission the plant. No human has been able to enter the highly radiated chamber since the tsunami disaster.

Toshiba Corp.'s nuclear Inspection robot climbs stairs during a demonstration at a Toshiba factory in Yokohama, west of Tokyo, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. The four-legged robot is designed to help at the meltdown-crippled Japanese nuclear plant, climbing over debris and venturing into radiated areas off-limits to human workers. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)

"We need this to go in and first check what is there," said Toshiba Senior Manager Goro Yanase.

It was unclear when a decision on the robot's use would be made, according to TEPCO, which operates the nuclear plant.

Although what Toshiba showed was top-notch robotics, what the machine might be able to do appeared limited in the face of the disaster's magnitude and complexity.

Japan boasts among the world's most sophisticated robotics technology, exemplified in the walking, talking human-shaped Asimo robot from Honda Motor Co. The inability of such gadgetry to help out with the Fukushima disaster was widely criticized.

Engineers inspect Toshiba's four-legged robot during a demonstration at Toshiba's technical center in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo. The tetrapod, which weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds) and is about one metre (3 foot, four inches) tall, is designed to be able to cover difficult terrain—such as going up steep steps—that regular robots struggle with.

Part of the reason is that robots, although suited for tasks such as greeting visitors at dealerships, are too delicate. Their wireless remote-controlled networks are not designed to endure high radiation. Honda has acknowledged Asimo would not have been able to withstand the environment at Fukushima, as some had suggested.

Toshiba's Yanase said the new robot, which has a dosimeter to measure radiation and six cameras, can stay in a 100 millisievert environment for about a year and can tolerate even higher radiated areas for shorter periods. At 100 millisieverts, the rise in cancer cases caused by radiation becomes statistically detectable, although even lower dose radiation is not advisable for people.

The suppression chamber was 360 millisieverts the last time it was measured, TEPCO said.

Decommissioning Fukushima Dai-ichi is expected to take decades.

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TheKnowItAll
4 / 5 (4) Nov 21, 2012
It's always a pleasure to see any advancement in robotics. Nice work.
antialias_physorg
2.7 / 5 (3) Nov 21, 2012
If they want to get a sensor platform in there (and such a robot is not any use for anything else) why don't they use a quadcopter or a small (remote controlled/autonomous) blimp? Seems a lot easier to maneuver a floating/flying vehicle in fragmented terrain than something with legs that is a loss as soon as it falls over.

The hardening is only relevant to the electronics (which can be quite small) - so the additional shielding doesn't require that much weight that a flying platform becomes unfeasible.
javjav
not rated yet Nov 21, 2012
If they want to get a sensor platform in there (and such a robot is not any use for anything else) why don't they use a quadcopter r.

Because radiation shielding and batteries for high power transmission are required in radiation environments, , too much weight
antialias_physorg
2 / 5 (1) Nov 21, 2012
You don't need high energy transmissions. Just plonk down a couple of tiny relay stations along the way and use line of sight infrared LEDs for transmission. That requires next to no power (and also no shielding other than the microscopic circuit used for processing)

A friend of mine did his PhD thesis on a security system based on this idea a few years back. Every room got a tiny LED receiver/transmitter, and the mylar blimp with the camera could either find its way autonomously or be remote guided via a signal sent through these relays. The entire system was very cheap to build (less than 1000 Euros in parts).

A blimp can operate very long on very little battery power. And when it runs low just head on out to a charging station (in his system the charging station was high up on a wall and the blimp docked with it autonomously whenever it needed to).
javjav
5 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2012
Just plonk down a couple of tiny relay stations along the way and use line of sight infrared LEDs for transmission.


Direct line of sight trough those stairways? maybe not impossible, it is easy to say but it sounds like a very complex solution. Also infrared LED's can't provide bandwidth for sending images for the remote pilots

That requires next to no power (and also no shielding other than the microscopic circuit used for processing)

Do you also have microscopic infrared video cameras? microscopic batteries ? microscopic Geiger sensors? a microscopic arm to open the doors ?

Looking to Tepco past strategies they will simply send a kamikaze with a spacesuit, preferably one that already has cancer, in exchange for a lot of money for him and for his family.
VendicarD
not rated yet Nov 25, 2012
During it's demonstration, the unit froze solid while trying to take a step and had to be carried off stage.

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