From Quake to Nuclear Disaster: Different Problems, Different Robots

We’ve heard from some of our colleagues in the field about rescue robots but now the issue has shifted to nuclear response… I’m getting lots of inquiries.

About the rescue robots: The rescue roboticists had contacted various fire departments who for this phase did not need the ground robots (see previous blogs) as the tasks are getting people off the tops of buildings or trying to recover bodies. However, we have reports that there is considerable interest in robots for recovery- especially inspecting port and underwater infrastructure as well as in removing rubble. I have no confirmation that they have deployed any robots for these tasks. We have shifted our standby cache to include more underwater vehicles with very accurate sonars.

Now to nuclear response–

Red Whittaker at the Field Robotics Institute at CMU is the expert in using robots for nuclear disasters (had robots at the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island- but many months later). A few years ago CRASAR looked at what it would take to use our small rescue robots to search for survivors in the aftermath of a “dirty bomb” where radiation wouldn’t be as intense (the scenario from The Sum of All Fears)- and even for this “easy” case, it  wasn’t feasible.

Sensors would probably be the first to go– video and cameras are fairly sensitive to radiation from their CCD chips. It’s impossible to work remotely if you can’t see.

The bigger, slower bomb squad robots were first invented by Oak Ridge National Laboratories to handle nuclear disasters which spun off Remotec. These robots have to big to carry all the shielding. The newer ones are lighter and less protected and the IED robots have evolved to be even lighter- so less reliable in a nuclear disaster. So in some sense you need a dinosaur robot- big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors)– and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important… You don’t know how long you’ve got.

Big and stupid means slow. And limited battery times- and who will be changing those batteries? You have to go in and out… losing time at each “lap.”

Stupid is the wrong way to go based on our human-robot interaction studies. Less sensors, particularly cameras means harder to control or move quickly. And less sensors means no autonomy so if you get tired, the robot runs into things. And that could make things worse. Or ruin the robot.  So you want more autonomy so that the robot drives itself, much like a horse. The person directs but the horse actually controls its own motions and adjusts it gait and goes around obstacles.

And then there’s the issue of using a tether or wireless– if radiation doesn’t interfere with wireless, what’s left of the walls and the various containment structures will.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the Japanese. We are, of course, worried about our colleagues in Sendai which is 55 miles from the reactors. There’s no fuel to evacuate.

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