Japan readies own robot to probe crippled nuclear plant
Eiji Koyanagi of the Chiba Institute of Technology shows the Quince rescue robot. (Seiji Iwata)
Recognized as the world leader in robotic technology, Japan will finally deploy its own robot at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after relying on U.S.-made versions to do all the work.
The Quince, equipped with an arm, a camera and sensors, is set to survey radiation levels, temperatures and other conditions inside reactor buildings.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. has used PackBots, manufactured by U.S. company iRobot Corp., to measure radiation levels and other data in reactor buildings and take photographs. But Japan is known for its advanced robotic technology, and the current crisis at Fukushima No. 1 is a chance to utilize it and gain experience in a real-life disaster situation.
"TEPCO wants to use overseas robots because Japanese-made products do not have experience (in disaster scenes)," said Shigeo Hirose, a professor of robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
The Quince has been improved to deal with the accident at the Fukushima plant. The distance over which it can be operated wirelessly has been extended to two kilometers, and the robot can now be used through a cable link as well.
The disaster rescue robot moves on five caterpillar-like crawlers via remote control. Its main body measures 66 centimeters long and 48 centimeters wide.
It was developed by Eiji Koyanagi, vice director of the Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Research Center; Satoshi Tadokoro, a professor of robotics at Tohoku University; and other researchers.
Operators will manipulate the Quince wirelessly from two kilometers away via a relay robot. The Quince and the relay unit will be connected with a fiber-optic cable 100 to 200 meters long.
TEPCO employees and other workers will use the Quince after receiving training.
Japan has tried to develop robots for nuclear power plant work twice in the past.
In 1983, a project to develop an inspection robot started following the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. But it ended in 1990 after about 20 billion yen ($244 million) was spent.
Another project to develop a robot for a nuclear accident started after a fatal accident at JCO Co. in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1999. After several billion yen was spent, the project was ended in one year on the grounds that the government did not want to give off a mistaken impression to the public.
"(Authorities) perhaps thought that people would think that they were anticipating a nuclear power plant accident if they had developed robots for accidents," Hirose said.
(This article was written by Seiji Iwata and Nobutaro Kaji.)