Japan aims 'Octopus' robot at nuclear disasters

Disaster-response robot 'Octopus' debuts in Japan
Credit: Waseda Univ.

Researchers in Japan have unveiled an "octopus" robot designed to clear rubble in disaster areas including the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that was crippled in floods following a tsunami in 2011.

Robots thrown into action at the time by Japanese manufacturers, university engineering teams and the U.S. Dept. of Energy, among others, ended up being precious little help. None were able to negotiate the flooded hallways or clear even comparatively light rubble sufficiently to make repairs or provide a good look at conditions inside the dying nuclear facility.

Rubble and puddles will not be a problem for the 1,500-lb. "Octopus," whose eight limbs include independently operable heavy-duty tracks, four grappling arms and the ability to carry extra equipment, including a remote-operable chainsaw and a laser capable of cutting through stone, according to the March 13 announcement by Waseda University's Future Robotics Organization and Kikuchi Corp. Kikuchi is a heavy manufacturing company with many facilities near the Fukushima plant, and which local officials have credited with contributing to both the cleanup and the area's economic recovery.

Octopus was designed specifically for the broken terrain and hazardous environment of major disaster areas, according to the release, which predicts it will find use in lifesaving and search-and-rescue missions following earthquakes, fires and other disasters in addition to its potential usefulness in responding to another nuclear-plant meltdown.

Artist's concept of Waseda Univ. robot 'Octopus' responding to disaster Waseda Univ.

Not only do the four tracks allow it to climb over rubble that could be tilting in four different directions, the robot is designed specifically to be able to use its rear arms to hold itself up while climbing over even steeper rubble using the front two arms and four tracks.

Using all four arms, each of which is designed to lift at least 440 lbs., Octopus can lift itself completely over some obstacles or up onto ledges made inaccessible by collapsed stairways or entryways.

It's not the most wieldy 'bot out there, however. Driving it requires two expert handlers with a joystick in each of their four hands, though later designs should require just one operator, according to the designers.

Two controllers, four joysticks needed to operate eight-limbed robot Weasea Univ.

It can also withstand radiation that still poisons the immediate area and makes the Fukushima plant a no-go zone, and has made economic recovery difficult even for communities outside the disaster zone. The disaster itself killed more than 15,000 people, nearly all from other effects of the tsunami, not leaks from the power plant, which caused the evacuation of more than 300,000 people from the area.

Octopus was one of several disaster-response robots presented at a conference designed to highlight progress in responding to the disaster – a process the Fukushima Prefectural government predicts will take at least another 10 years.

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