Toshiba reveals new robot which could help in nuclear disasters

Toshiba Corp yesterday unveiled a four-legged robot that can allegedly withstand high radiation and help in nuclear disasters, according to the company. The 65kg robot which stands at over one metre tall is able to enter radiated areas which are off-limits to human workers, and has a wireless network which can be controlled in high radiation.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) has said that it may use the robot to inspect the suppression chamber of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where a meltdown triggered by the massive tsunami caused nuclear devastation last year. Toshiba began developing the robot soon after the disaster, hoping that it would prove useful in decommissioning the plant. No human has yet been able to enter the highly radiated chamber and the new robot, which features a dosimeter to measure radiation, 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, and the last time it was measured by TEPCO, the Fukushima suppression chamber was 360 millisieverts.

However, although many were impressed by the robotics of the new creation, there was doubt as to the real impact such a machine might be able to have, given the magnitude and complexity of the disaster. During a demonstration to reporters, the robot showed itself to be prone to glitches, and on one occasion froze and had to be rebooted. Although its jointed legs are operated by a ‘movement algorithm’ to allow it to climb steps, it was noticeably slow in this endeavour, taking about a minute to mount each step. Reporters from Japan Today questioned the robot‘s potential to successfully clear obstacles inside the plant, as it is thought to be full of debris; the current model of the machine may need as long as ten minutes to figure out how to clear an object. It is currently also unable to get up on its own if it falls.

Toshiba were, however, adamant that such a machine would be useful in the project of decommissioning the plant. Senior Manager Goro Yanase said, “we need this to go in and first check what is there”. The company said that it is still working on designs with the aim of creating robots able to install radiation shields, stop water flow and remove obstacles as part of clean up and dismantling project at the plant.

It was unclear when a decision on the robot’s use inside the plant would be made by TEPCO, but the decommissioning project is expected to take decades.

Sources inlcude: Japan Today, The Register

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