“I think the best things robots can be used for right now is to gain information that rescue workers otherwise would not have unless they expose themselves to unnecessary risk and danger,” says Howie Choset, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University who has developed several search-and-rescue robots. When cameras at the nuclear plants fail, he says, “going in and getting that situational awareness is of paramount importance”. But performing manipulation tasks—even something as simple as opening a door—would be “many orders of magnitude more difficult,” Choset adds.
Nonetheless, in France, the Group Intra is developing a fleet of robots designed to help at nuclear plants by measuring radiation and observing in situations when people cannot.
Michael Golay, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, says that, although electric power has been restored to the Fukushima site, workers with handheld instruments and flashlights have to assess which areas have been contaminated. “This is the kind of thing you could use a robot to do,” he says.
But Golay says it’s far likelier that robots will be used during the cleanup than during the critical stages of an accident, and believes robots could help long-term in Japan. After Three Mile Island, fuel was taken out of the reactor and transferred to shipping casks. “I imagine in Japan they’ll do something similar. They’re not going to want to leave all of this radioactive material like at Chernobyl,” he says. “This cleanup is likely to go on for more than a decade. Robotic capabilities that don’t exist today could be brought into being in time to be useful.”
Trainer says there are great opportunities for robotics in dirty and dangerous missions. “Our robots are designed for unimproved and austere environments,” he says. “They are able to climb over debris and climb up stairs and negotiate different situations.”