Japanese robots await call to action

Kyodo

Japanese robots designed for heavy lifting and data collection have been prepared for deployment at irradiated reactor buildings of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power station, where U.S.-made robots have already taken radiation and temperature readings as well as visual images at the crippled facility via remote control.

At the request of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Tmsuk Co., a robot builder based in Munakata, Fukuoka Prefecture, has put its rescue robot T-53 Enryu on standby at a dedicated facility in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, about 170 km southwest of the power plant in Fukushima Prefecture devastated by the March 11 magnitude-9.0 quake and tsunami.

Enryu (rescue dragon) was developed in the aftermath of the magnitude-7.3 Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit the Kobe area in 1995. Designed to engage in rescue work, the remote-controlled robot has two arms that can lift objects up to 100 kg. It has “undergone training” at the Kitakyushu municipal fire department in Fukuoka Prefecture.

Tmsuk President Yoichi Takamoto said, “We don’t know what we can do at a nuclear power plant until we give it a try, but we do believe we can do something about removing rubble” from explosions that have blocked human operations around the plant.

Satoshi Tadokoro, a Tohoku University professor specializing in robots used for disaster operations, said, “Japan doesn’t have any military-use robots, but it has technology on a par with the United States.”

Tadokoro said a plan is under way to employ at the power plant a highly mobile research robot that he was involved in developing.

In early April, the Robotics Society of Japan and other related organizations jointly set up a task force and sent engineers to the government’s project team that is brainstorming with Tokyo Electric Power Co. about how robots may be used at the plant.

But given the urgency of the mission and circumstances, European and U.S.-built robots with a proven track record in military use and nuclear plant accidents have drawn attention.

A pair of PackBots from iRobot Corp. of the United States entered the buildings of reactors 1 to 3 Sunday and Monday to take video footage and check radiation levels, temperatures, oxygen concentrations and other data inside.

A robotics industry source expressed frustration about the absence of Japanese robots at the plant in the initial crisis response at Fukushima No. 1 “We hope to obtain for Japanese manufacturers critical data that may be acquired only through operating machines at a site and use them for robot development,” the source said.

Nuclear power plant builders Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. have promoted development of robots for use in accidents at atomic plants since a major accident at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1999 that claimed the lives of two people and exposed hundreds of others to radioactive materials.

The central government initially contributed ¥3 billion in subsidies for the robot project but its funding did not last long and the development process was halted before any units were perfected for actual use.

An official of the Manufacturing Science and Technology Center, which was in charge of the development at that time, said, “There was a strong sense among us that those types of robot would never have a real-life chance to flex their muscles.”

Some prototype robots developed in the process have been put on display at Sendai Science Museum. A museum employee said of the halted development initiative, “It was like stopping premium payments for a nonrefundable insurance policy.”

While the Enryu is ready for its mission to remove rubble at the stricken plant, the biggest challenge is combating the spread of radiation.

University of Tokyo professor Hajime Asama said, “Mobilizing a robot without any consideration (for radiation) could complicate the situation and may even hinder work.”

Its ability to work in a highly radioactive environment should be checked beforehand and, if need be, it should be reinforced with lead as a shield for radiation, he said.