U.S. robots aid in Japan relief efforts

iRobot machines may be used in nuclear facilities to test for radiation, damage

iRoboto Warrior

iRobot has sent four robots to aid Japan in its relief efforts. Equipped with sensors, arms and cameras, the bots will be able to go where it may not be safe for people. (Image courtesy of iRobot)

Robots may soon be rolling through Japanese nuclear power plants, testing the air for radiation and evaluating the amount of damage to the facilities.

Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot shipped four battery-powered robots to Japan late last week to help the Japanese military with the daunting relief effort in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11. The company, which in the past has sent robots to aid rescue and cleanup efforts in the area affected by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, also has six employees in Japan helping to train others to use the machines.

"Many of our folks got into robotics in the first place just to do this kind of thing," said Tim Trainer, a vice president at iRobot. "We found out they were needed mid-afternoon on that Thursday.... Some folks had departed for the day, and we called them and they turned around and came back. We ordered a lot of pizzas. Found spare parts. Figured out logistics. Packed it all up and had it on a truck 26 hours later."

While it may be most well known for its popular Roomba self-controlled vacuum cleaner, iRobot also builds industrial and military robots for bomb disposal, reconnaissance and other purposes. For the work that needs to be done in Japan, company executives chose two rugged models, the PackBot and the Warrior, and sent two of each to that country.

The PackBot is a battle-tested machine that is used by hazardous materials teams, bomb squads and infantry troops. Generally weighing 45 to 60 pounds, the PackBot moves on tracks, enabling it to climb over debris, rough terrain and even up stairs.

The PackBot also is equipped with hazmat sensors that enable it to detect chemical, biological and radiological contaminants in the environment. The robot collects data about the toxins it detects and sends it back to its operators.

The nearly 350-pound Warrior is built to be rugged and carry payloads of more than 150 pounds. It's also designed to do reconnaissance and bomb disposal, according to iRobot.

Trainer noted that all four robots that have been sent to Japan are equipped with multiple cameras and can be operated from up to half a mile away. "People can stay at a safe distance and evaluate obstructions and the security and safety of a building," he added.

He also said the robots could be used for search and rescue missions, and there's a strong possibility that they will be sent into nuclear facilities that sustained damage during the earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago.

"I believe they are looking at all options, and that's certainly one of them," said Trainer. "We're looking at a variety of things, like reconnaissance. [The robots] have cameras on them. There's an arm that could pick things up and move them out of the way or move them to a different area."

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said the robots should be valuable tools for a country that's dealing with so much devastation.

"This is the perfect use for advanced robotics -- having them perform recon duties in environments that are unsafe for humans," he said. "What impresses me about these bots is the flexibility they bring to the table. They can be configured to fight fires, move rubble or deliver items. I can see them performing all of these duties in and around Japan's damaged nuclear reactors."

"This tragedy can be a proof point for the value of these sophisticated machines," he added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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