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03.19.11

Send in the Robots to Japan's Nuclear Meltdown

Japan is famous for creating robots, so why aren't they being used to help end the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi? A robotics expert tells Dan Lyons they'll be used soon—but don't expect a SWAT team of smart, autonomous Terminators.

The scientist who created robots to clean up after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters says similar machines will play a big role at the Fukushima plant that is now suffering a meltdown.

"There is no question that robotics will play a great role in the sustained response and recovery in Japan," said William "Red" Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "The Japanese are masters in robotics. They are great at what they do."

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Recent reports have pointed out that despite Japan's proficiency at creating lifelike robots that can run and play the violin, so far the dangerous and possibly deadly work of managing the crisis at Fukushima has been left to humans.

But Whittaker, while conceding that he has not been involved directly with helping out at Fukushima, said robots eventually will be applied in any number of ways. First off will be submersible devices—"You can call them swimming machines," he said—deployed to survey the damage.

"The first agenda is always to evaluate, and to do that you have to get access. You have to get into places," he said.

“It’s not a matter of looking like R2D2. In a nuclear incident, there are needs to handle materials, to load materials, to carry things, sometimes to clean surfaces.”

Whittaker had just finished his Ph.D. in civil engineering at Carnegie Mellon when the Three Mile Island meltdown occurred in 1979. He and others at the university built three-wheeled remote-controlled robots that explored the basement of the reactor to inspect and clean up after the disaster. That was how the Carnegie Mellon robotics program was born.

Since then, Whittaker and his colleagues have designed robots to explore other harsh environments, like ice fields in Antarctica and the inside of volcanoes.

The devices Whittaker has built and the ones that likely will be deployed in Japan are not the humanoid devices of science fiction. They're more likely to be remote-controlled cranes and digging machines.

"It's not a matter of looking like R2D2. In a nuclear incident, there are needs to handle materials, to load materials, to carry things, sometimes to clean surfaces," he says. "You can call these devices robots, but they're sometimes just called 'remote work systems,' because in almost all cases in this kind of operation they are tele-operated or directed by humans."

In other words, don't expect a SWAT team of smart, autonomous Terminator robots to go bounding into the building. The reality is more mundane than that.

But Whittaker said robots could help dismantle the reactor; package and load and haul away parts; and monitor the site for years after the cleanup is done.

The first chore simply will be to get in and "observe and view and sense," and figure out what's going wrong and how to stop it, he said. "To get that done there are machines that crawl, or roll, or swim, or fly. It's not like one size fits all."

And it's not going to happen overnight. The work will take years. "It has to be a sustained campaign," Whittaker said.

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.