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Japan Robotics Technology

Where Were the Robots In Fukushima Crisis? 130

Posted by timothy
from the robot-union-was-in-heavy-negotiations dept.
mdsolar writes "When the huge Fukushima nuclear disaster first started, many on Slashdot were calling for robots to come to the rescue. This is the story of why our overlords were caught napping. Not to worry though, ¥1 billion has been allocated to correct the robot problem. They will be properly welcomed."
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Where Were the Robots In Fukushima Crisis?

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  • I got serious doubts about Japan in reality vs. Japan in virtuality after these nuclear disaster events.

  • No incentive (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hentes (2461350) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @09:36AM (#38629070)

    With nuclear accidents being extremely rare there is no point in designing robots specifically for them. Those models would most likely become obsolete without ever being used.

    • Re:No incentive (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Capitaine (2026730) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @09:43AM (#38629112)
      Nuclear disasters are not the only use case of such robots. Fire-fighting, post-earthquake/terror attack assistance etc. apart from the shielding, not much changes. An Asimo or any other humanoïd robot doesn't help much in those cases. They are good for shows or interaction with human but not for operation in hard terrains.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        Nuclear disasters are not the only use case of such robots. Fire-fighting, post-earthquake/terror attack assistance etc. apart from the shielding, not much changes.

        But the shielding is important. All your electronics and your sensors will go harvoc there. To get anything working you most likely need totally different designs.

        Camaras (both analog and digital) are likely to also 'see' the radiation and thus no longer see anything, and while you can shield the inner core electronics, roboters without sensors or actors do not make much sense.

        If you have to deal with high radiation, you either need very special robots. Or you need humans. They will not come back, and they

        • by Pi1grim (1956208)

          Likely to "see the radiation"? How about reading up on the spectrum emitted. As for analog cameras — are saying there are robots that use film cameras as visual sensors? If radiation is jamming the electronics then the human sent in that environment will fry on the spot in the matter of minutes. Simple as that.

        • by cyfer2000 (548592) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @10:38AM (#38629432) Journal
          Under high radiation, even oils like lubricants and hydraulic liquids can go bad very quickly. You can imagine your car running with gunk instead of oil.
          • Processing units must be protected against the radiation. This is expensive (weight) and you dont build a robot that *might* be used in a radiation environment. So not quick adaptibility here. Extreme heat and cold could be more interesting - these robots could be used for fighting fires or solve problems with (advanced) cooling systems. But: For space, they try to use processing units with the ability to repair themselfes, rather than to use a radiation shields. They could be used for these robots, too.
      • Re:No incentive (Score:5, Informative)

        by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @11:32AM (#38629854) Homepage Journal
        Actually, it says in the article that sufficient shielding more than doubled the weight of one Japanese robot used at Fukushima. Also, the normal wireless remote control was useless inside of the reactor buildings and had to be replaced with a cable that eventually snapped. Robots that have to properly accommodate these two requirements do require some specialized engineering, it would appear.
        • by cusco (717999)
          Seems like no one talked to the folks at JPL. Galileo has been functioning in the radiation hell which is Jupiter's close environs for years, and somehow I don't think they're using a cable to communicate with it . . .
          • Well, the next time you design a nuclear power plant, you can make sure to do away with all of the radiation shielding that the facilities included that blocked the robot's radio. Then, maybe, your friends at the JPL will be able to help you. RTFA! :)
            • by cusco (717999)
              Ah. Had to go back and re-read it twice before I saw the line that said "the robot's existing wireless system would have malfunctioned". They're probably right, a standard BrandX wireless router wouldn't have worked, but one would think that they'd have been willing to cough up the money for military-grade equipment. Maybe it would have taken them too long to figure out how to integrate a new wireless system into it, makes no sense to me. But then, it makes no sense to me that they preferred to start ov
      • by AmiMoJo (196126)

        The human interaction stuff is actually quite important for rescue operations where people are involved. You want a robot that is fast, able to move over difficult terrain and very strong so it can move heavy objects, yet gentle enough to handle human beings and understand how to avoid accidentally hurting them.

    • Well, there's something to be said about money well spent even despite never being necessary. By that logic, I should probably dismantle the fire alarms in my house since the chance that their detectors go bad before the first fire happening is pretty high.

    • Risk includes magnitude.

    • With nuclear accidents being extremely rare there is no point in designing robots specifically for them. Those models would most likely become obsolete without ever being used.

      An "obsolete" robot is better than no robot.

    • With nuclear accidents being extremely rare there is no point in designing robots specifically for them. Those models would most likely become obsolete without ever being used.

      So you've factored in 'possibility'. What about 'impact'. So are you saying that nuclear accidents are so rare that it is OK to kill off or severely impact or shorten the lives of dozens or more people whenever it does happen? That's a pretty stupid notion if you ask me.

      And what is it about ionizing radiation that changes so much that

      • by Hentes (2461350)

        So you've factored in 'possibility'. What about 'impact'. So are you saying that nuclear accidents are so rare that it is OK to kill off or severely impact or shorten the lives of dozens or more people whenever it does happen? That's a pretty stupid notion if you ask me.

        Every industry has a risk. It's sad when accidents happen, but we can't defend against everything. If they become widespread, those hospital robots could help far more people than nuclear accidents would claim.

        • Risks sure, but you still haven't recognized that risks have at least two factors to take into consideration: probability and impact. Low probability low impact I can see handling it on a case by case basis. Low probability and high impact in terms of human beings being killed cleaning up the mess? I'd say you prepare for it pretty damned fully up front. There is no reason for people to die or get cancer because some board member of a company determined that it didn't happen enough. And nuclear accidents ar
          • by cusco (717999)
            Containment buildings exist for one reason: The companies were forced to build them. In the game of musical chairs that makes up the leadership positions of Corporate America every executive assumes that they'll have rotated out of that position by the time a disaster occurs and some other sociopath will be in the hot seat when it happens. The only down side would be if they hadn't unloaded their stock options by that time. If it won't improve the bottom line by the time the next time executive bonuses a
    • by Shavano (2541114)

      When evaluating the cost of preparing for unlikely but extremely costly or dangerous events, people routinely get it wrong. Either they drastically overestimate or underestimate the likelihood of the event occurring.

      Let's say the estimated cost of a meltdown was pegged at $1 billion and 100 lives. And lets say you can add a feature or siting to the reactor design that cuts the risk of meltdown from 1% to 1/2% over its lifetime. That feature is worth spending $5 million and 5 lives.

    • Radiation-hardened robots would be useful in routine plant maintenance, for areas where humans can only stay for minutes at a time.

      There's plenty of safety-related hardware at a nuclear plant that may never get used: a lot of it is more expensive than a few robots.

    • by Maxmin (921568)

      Disasters are rare-ish, but accidents are not. Robots for removing highly radioactive leaked water and other materials would be helpful.

    • Maybe a tsunami is rare, but they still have Mothra and Godzilla over there, so it's probably worth it
    • by Idbar (1034346)
      With cruise ships accidents being extremely rare, I guess the number of rafts should follow the Titanic's design premises. After all one accident in many is not worth the expense.
    • by pev (2186)

      I can poke a few holes in your argument there... :

      Those models would most likely become obsolete without ever being used.

      1) The nuclear power plants designs don't change significantly over their decades long lifespans. The robot is a tool. If it's designed to do the job in the first place, it's ability to do so does not become obsolete any more than the power plant itself does (or other proper tech such as the space shuttle or 747's over their lifespans). Newer tech may become available that improves on the

    • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

      The US had developed them.

  • It is simple (Score:2, Insightful)

    by peragrin (659227)

    Pride prevented them from acknowledging their weaknesses and thus prevented them from building robots that could go into the bad places that humans have made.

    it is pretty typical japanese ignore a potential situation until you are shamed into no longer ignoring it. It is one of the few things that japan does that they are ashamed of but because they are shamed they won't fix it.

    American's are alway cleaning up the mess made by others. hopefully one day someone will clean up after us American's

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by swamp_ig (466489)

      American's are alway cleaning up the mess made by others. hopefully one day someone will clean up after us American's

      Like inappropriate apostrophes?

    • To me, the parent post seems an elaborate rationalization for why the argument, nuke==bad didn't win in Japan. The Japanese must be secretly ashamed of not agreeing with a Slashdot poster.
      • What the hell are you talking about? I don't see any rationalization but more a statement of pretty much universally understood Japanese behaviour. And I will say it is pretty much universally understood that America does help a lot (more than any other country) with money and manpower when natural and some man made disasters hit other countries. But I am not sure if that help comes anywhere close to the manpower and money they spend screwing other countries up with their interventional (overt and covert) f
        • by khallow (566160)
          I see yet another statement of pretty much universally understood Slashdot behavior.
      • by fnj (64210)

        Re-read it.

    • by fnj (64210)

      American's are alway cleaning up the mess made by others. hopefully one day someone will clean up after us American's

      Hopefully America could one day clean up just one hellish mess that we generate ourselves.

  • Easy (Score:5, Funny)

    by should_be_linear (779431) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @10:01AM (#38629206)
    Some of them were playing violin, while rest enjoyed walking up and down the stairs.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Some of them were playing violin

      Nerobot

  • by Gnavpot (708731) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @10:20AM (#38629278)

    The comments here on /. are focused on why robots were not built in advance. But I am wondering why nothing was done in the days after the disaster.

    When I heard about the attempts of cooling from the outside using fire trucks, which failed because the radiation was too high for the personnel, my first thought was:
    Mythbusters can make a vehicle remote operated for a weekly TV show. The entire nation of Japan can't make a fire truck remote operated after facing a nuclear disaster?

    • by Asic Eng (193332)

      I'm a Mythbusters fan, but their remote-controlled vehicles suck. They don't even build-in an automatic brake when the vehicle gets out of range of the remote. Furthermore, it's damn difficult to build electronics which can operate in an environment where they are constantly subjected to intense electromagnetic radiation. IIRC the first robots they used in Chernobyl basically drove in and stopped without accomplishing anything.

      Finally, the US, France and Germany offered to loan Japan suitable robots. The

    • by WWWWolf (2428)

      Mythbusters can make a vehicle remote operated for a weekly TV show.

      Except that a discerning viewer might notice they don't produce all of the material for a single episode a week. It's fairly obvious that they can spend a longer time testing a single myth than a week, if the need arises. They seem to sort of buffer their stuff on the background and have multiple bits of stuff going on at once.

      So this is what they might say:
      "We need a remote-controlled fire truck. How much time do you need?"
      "Two weeks."
      "...oh, and unlike your normal stuff, it absolutely has to work, beca

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 08, 2012 @03:08PM (#38631388)

      Actually french nuclear intervention team send them 3 remote operated firetruck, a excavator, a bulldozer and 2 team of operators. They refused them for the false pretext those vehicle was unadapted. Those radiation proof remote operated vehicle already exist but for political reason they refuse to use them.

      Why did the did that ? They didn't want foreign expert to have access to the site or evaluate the situation.

      http://www.groupe-intra.com/index2.htm

      For the mythbusters part, it's not trivial to actually build this kind of vehicle, all the electronic must be radiation proof (thing spacial grade equipment) and they are usually wire-linked because radio is unreliable in those environment.

      • by fnj (64210)

        Mod parent up informative and insightful.

      • by Waccoon (1186667)

        Sounds a lot like Chernobyl. Foreign scientists had virtually no access to the site for study. It took years to drill into the reactor core, with a makeshift camera strapped to a disassembled toy tank, just to look at what was inside.

  • Robots [inl.gov] were sent and it was on Slashdot at the time too. The problem is Robots don't work in radioactive environments unless they have been made for it. You can't harden every existing robot to radiation because they normally don't encounter that level of radiation working in a Car Manufacturing plant. Even we only have 1 facility that specializes in making that kind of equipment. If it's a matter of pride to Japan that "Their" robots didn't help they will find out that the cost to build and maintain th
    • actually, it's pretty damn easy to harden a robot against radiation. It's called Magnetics and only requires a minimal amount of additional power to shield the electronics. Normal electric motors aren't as bothered by high levels of radiation as people think. What causes problems is the electronic motors and sensors tend to be fried due to eddy currents induced in the chips and circuits.

      This is actually solvable through use of either basic electric motors or even better the use of hydraulics. As someone el

      • actually, it's pretty damn easy to harden a robot against radiation. It's called Magnetics and only requires a minimal amount of additional power to shield the electronics. Normal electric motors aren't as bothered by high levels of radiation as people think. What causes problems is the electronic motors and sensors tend to be fried due to eddy currents induced in the chips and circuits.

        What? What is this "Magnetics" and how does that protect against gamma rays? Surely not a magnetic field, as it doesn't do squat against high energy photons. And what do eddy currents have to do with high levels of radiation?

        • by Trilkin (2042026)

          I imagine the parent to be a man in clown paint.

        • by Cassini2 (956052) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @12:04PM (#38630150)

          What? What is this "Magnetics" and how does that protect against gamma rays?

          Most of a robot is built with some fairly old-school stuff, like steel and copper, and this is unaffected by gamma rays (in the short term). The robot moves through the use of magnetics ie: Electric Motors. It turns out that most electric motors, along with the steel and rubber used in most robots is short-term invulnerable to low intensity (and even fairly high intensity) radiation. The issue is that certain types of radiation generate electric (and magnetic) fields which play havoc with some of the fancy sensors used in the newer brushless DC motor designs. The solution is to redesign the magnetics of the robot such that they use old-school technologies which operate happily in extreme environments.

          Radiation sources like gamma rays will eventually effect some of the key non-electronic systems of robots. In particular, they can break down insulation. Also, they can render the entire robot radioactive, and not safe to be around people. Prolonged exposure to high-energy sources may also damage bearing surfaces, preventing robot motion. However, long before any of this happens, the electronics will act up.

          The GP poster was trying to suggest: is (a) take a regular robot, (b) install radiation protected electronics, (c) use a bunch of old-school servo-motor technologies (like DC motors and resolvers), and (d) you will have a short-term survivable rad-hardened robot.

      • by Shavano (2541114)

        It's the control systems and sensors that are vulnerable to radiation. The electromechanical systems aren't.

  • by assertation (1255714) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @10:25AM (#38629324)

    The most important questions go beyond the robots:

    Why did they use a design that was pronounced risky by Rand McNally BEFORE the plant was built?

    Why did they build it in an earthquake zone and in a zone vulnerable to tsunamis?

    I bet a lot of of Japanese business men would love for the focus to stay on some technical failures with the robots.

    • "Why did they build it in an earthquake zone and in a zone vulnerable to tsunamis?"

      Because they didn't knew it's an earthquake zone. Plate tectonics wasn't discovered by that time.

      • by PPH (736903) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @10:55AM (#38629586)

        I think the Japanese (and the world in general) had a pretty good idea of the relationship between earthquakes and Tsunamis long before plate tectonics was understood. http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/DANIELSC/index.html [evergreen.edu]

        Interesting note: Some villagers on Sumatra survived the 2004 Tsunami [wikipedia.org] because their mythology included stories of what happens when there's an earthquake and then the water in the bay recedes (answer: run like hell for high ground).

    • by Asic Eng (193332)

      Why did they build it in an earthquake zone and in a zone vulnerable to tsunamis?

      It's Japan, the whole country is an earthquake zone. But yeah, there was no reason to build so close to the shore. The Onagawa nuclear power plant was 75 km closer to the epicenter, but it was built at 15 meters above sea level. It was fine.

      • Why did they build it in an earthquake zone and in a zone vulnerable to tsunamis?

        It's Japan, the whole country is an earthquake zone. But yeah, there was no reason to build so close to the shore. The Onagawa nuclear power plant was 75 km closer to the epicenter, but it was built at 15 meters above sea level. It was fine.

        There is a good reason (parts delivery by ship, water available for cooling in some cases), but it needs to be weighed with the risk associated with it.

    • Why did they build it in an earthquake zone and in a zone vulnerable to tsunamis?

      They'd have a hard time building a Japanese nuclear power plant somewhere other than Japan.

    • by Shavano (2541114)

      They also made the very serious mistake of making a reactor that would not passively quench the reaction when power was removed. That's essential to making a safe reactor no matter where you build it.

      I was greatly disturbed to learn that the reactors in Japan weren't built that way. They could have been.

    • by khallow (566160)

      Why did they use a design that was pronounced risky by Rand McNally BEFORE the plant was built?

      RAND Corporation is not the mapmaker business.

  • That's about $13 million. To put that into perspective, the Lunar X-prize robotics challenge offers prize money of $30 million; that doesn't even include team sponsorship. According to Wikipedia, the CMU robotics institute's projects alone cost more than $50 million every year. I know...financial crisis and all...but still, a billion yen is not much for robotics research.
  • The overlords were overlording over their minions.

    Thats what minions are for - to do the actual work. Overlords just sit back and watch the chaos!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's pretty simple - Japan doesn't really design robots to do jobs that humans can't do. Japan designs robots so that they don't have to let foreigners into the country. Therefore, most of the robotics research has been to deal with problems introduced by an aging closed society - things like taking care of the elderly [pcworld.com], farming [wired.co.uk] or teaching English to students [aolnews.com] (though the last one is actually South Korea).

    Japanese don't want any non-Japanese in their country doing these jobs (I speak from experience) but t

  • Â¥1 billion may sound like a lot, but it's only about $13M. Not exactly a major commitment.

  • by 0WaitState (231806) on Sunday January 08, 2012 @04:24PM (#38631946)

    Where were the robots? They were in the same place as the dosimeters, hazmat suits, geiger counters, breathing apparatus, standby generators, dual remote electrical hookups (Japan has two electrical standards), stocks of boron, reactor model upgrades, structure vents, and so on. In other words, nowhere. All preparation for emergencies was skipped. No doubt a couple decades of management bonuses were paid for keeping costs down.

    This is why nuclear power is unsafe. Because you can't trust humans to run systems where a cost cut today doesn't blow up for 10-20 years. This kind of crap happens in all industries, it's just that in the nuclear industry the "oops" consequences are devastating.

  • Not much when non-rad hardened robots for EoD type work start at $60,000 and can go up to $275,000.

    While Japan was caught naping, the US had robots for the job and sent some over.

    http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9215346/U.S._to_send_radiation_hardened_robots_to_Japan [computerworld.com]

    • by cusco (717999)
      EoD work? My End of Day robot should be able to bring me a cool drink and cook dinner after filling out my time sheet. Oh, you meant DoD? Never mind.

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