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Japan looks abroad for high-tech help at Fukushima plant

When the Japanese needed robots to work in environments at the nuclear plant deemed too dangerous for humans, the country known for its high-tech prowess looked abroad. Massachusetts-based iRobot is one of the firms that sent machines to do the work.

May 08, 2011|By John M. Glionna and Yuriko Nagano, Los Angeles Times
  • J. Gordon Wolfe Jr., a software engineer for iRobot, shows a model at the company's headquarters in Bedford, Mass. Four of the firm's robots were sent to Japan to work inside the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
J. Gordon Wolfe Jr., a software engineer for iRobot, shows a model at the… (Michael Fein / Bloomberg )

Reporting from Tokyo — The little robot rumbled across an otherworldly landscape, its camera lens clouding up in a hostile atmosphere too toxic for human habitation. Its motor whirring, it dispatched a constant stream of images to nervous operators grouped a safe distance away.

But the setting wasn't Mars and the scientists aren't from NASA: The robot's handlers were Japanese engineers guiding the remote-controlled machine through one of the battered reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The March earthquake and tsunami caused explosions that crippled three of the plant's six reactors, spewing radioactive isotopes into the environment that led to the evacuation of more than 80,000 residents. Until last week, the deserted reactors had been deemed too dangerous for workers to venture inside.

Enter technology — knowhow that has come from abroad to this country famous for its high-tech prowess.

In recent weeks, two U.S.-made 510 PackBot robots and two other machines have assessed the damage, measuring temperature and oxygen levels inside the reactors, often recording radiation levels that would soon kill a human engineer.

Rolling along on tank-like treads, their cameras situated at the end of a long, retractable arm, the utilitarian robots wouldn't win many style points with sci-fi aficionados. No larger than a child's wagon, they bump across uneven terrain on hours-long forays. One picture released by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows a robot arm slowly and awkwardly manipulating a handle on a pair of double doors that lead into a reactor building.

Such images make Tim Trainer swell with pride. The vice president of operations for iRobot, the Massachusetts-based company more well-known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, he has sent the creations into threatening environments before. More than 3,500 PackBots have been delivered to Afghanistan and Iraq for U.S. military use in detecting and disarming homemade bombs.

They've been employed by police bomb squads and were used to help search for bodies after the Sept. 11 attacks. But they've never been used in such a charged atmosphere, where temperatures reach 110 degrees in sauna-like conditions.

Trainer said the donated 60-pound robots were performing just fine. "It's very humid inside Reactor 2 with some pretty high levels of radiation," he said. "And generally, those robots have held up very well."

But in a nation renowned for its robotics research, many here are asking why the remote-controlled machines had to be imported. Critics say Japanese scientists have wasted too much of their expertise developing such gimmicky technology such as robots that can sing, dance and play musical instruments rather than more practical versions that could have been put to use in a national emergency.

Even after a 1999 accident at a nuclear plant in which two workers died of radiation exposure, Japan's nuclear power industry has been slow to invest in the development of radiation-resistant robots, research scientists here say.

"In the U.S., the Department of Defense buys sturdy robots like PackBots for military use, and French law makes it mandatory for its government to spend money on technology such as robots for nuclear emergencies as a precautionary measure," said Hirohisa Hirukawa, director of the Intelligent Systems Research Institute at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. "Japan doesn't have that."

Following the deaths of the two workers, officials had considered developing robots that could cope in nuclear disasters, but the momentum was soon lost.

"After they found that the building that housed the nuclear reactor was safe, authorities said, 'There won't be an accident and we won't need such robots,' and efforts to develop such robots have been scrapped," said Masahiro Sakigawara, general manager at the Future Robotics Technology Center at the Chiba Institute of Technology.

Trainer lauded officials at Fukushima for their quick decision to use his company's machines. "Sometimes," he said, "you've got to go to war with what you have and not what you want to have."

Trainer said the company provided four robots after learning of the disaster, dispatching them within 24 hours of arranging for delivery with the Japanese government. "There were a lot of inter-company e-mails asking, 'Why aren't we playing in this field?' We really thought we could help."

The firm sent six employees to Japan to teach operators how to control the robots. One benefit is that the remote-control system uses the same technology as the Xbox 360 home video game consoles, making it easy for young engineers to grasp.

"We've sold these robots to the Army, and we say that any 18-year-old has thousands of hours of training in using them before even showing up," Trainer said. "Japanese youth also have a lot of gaming experience. For them, it's easy and intuitive."

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