Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Are the Robots?

439x Although I wish it weren’t so, Fukushima Daiichi has proven to be a real test case for various kinds of automated and remote control equipment to help with various activities. We’ve looked at some drone planes sent over by France and the United States, so it’s time for some large motorized wheeled things:

The machinery consisted of an excavator and transporter, each equipped with a remote control system. Cameras were mounted on each piece of equipment and TEPCO set an additional six cameras around areas where work would take place.

The entire operation was managed from a mobile control room where staff could watch video from the cameras and manipulate the machinery, said Hiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for the electric utility.

That makes the effort seem a bit jury rigged, but no: they’re built for this purpose:

The remotely controlled machinery was originally developed for use in hazardous construction environments, such as those near volcanoes or where landslides could occur, said a spokesman for Yoshikawa Co., which worked on the system.

I looked over at Yoshikawa, but it’s an all-Japanese site. Even clicking around, I couldn’t tell you a thing about them, except that they have an initiative called EcoProject. And make remote controlled large wheeled things.

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Robot-violin Drones, excavators, transporters – everything but robots. This is Japan – where are the robots?

Yet in reality, robots capable of responding to nuclear accidents are thin on the ground in Japan – a reflection, experts say, of both the limits of current robotics technology and of power-plant operators’ reluctance to invest in improving it.

Balancing those two things are a bit hard, as TEPCO and other nuclear energy concerns in Japan would need to invest in them and have not done so. If they had, then the “limits of current robotics technology” would fall, at least in this narrow instance. Given Japan’s interest in robotics, not wanting them for specific types of events may be cultural – I mean, within the industry there.

One Japanese researcher says that before the Fukushima crisis, utilities had feared putting robots in their plants would send a “bad message” about safety. “Tepco’s argument was that their plants were totally safe, so an accident was impossible and robots were unnecessary,” he says. “They thought that if they deployed robots, it was the same as saying the plants weren’t safe. It was totally unscientific reasoning.”

forbidden-planet-robby That sounds muddled to me – I doubt the public would pay attention to the robots until they were needed and when they were needed, the appearance of safety would not be an issue. But I’ll assume our unnamed researcher knows about his own people and let it stand.

And on the issue of robotic technology:

Lem Fugitt, editor of Robots Dreams, a blog about robotics in Japan, says high-profile skill demonstrations and movies have misled people about robots’ true capabilities. “The reliability and durability of today’s robotics just isn’t high enough yet to tackle chaotic and extremely dangerous conditions like the interior of the Fukushima plants,” he says.

“Robotics perform extremely well under reasonably controlled conditions, but could easily make the situation even worse in situations like Fukushima,” he says.

helmetropolis If that’s true, then TEPCO has it exactly right not to invest in something that will not be helpful.

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On the other hand, the drones and heavy machinery appear to have been quite helpful. As far as I know, they are all loaned items rather than owned by TEPCO. Maybe some investment is such work is called for once everything has calmed down.

If anything, Toyota’s violin playing robot tries to avoid the too-human appearance of the robot in Metropolis (1926) while not looking overly mechanical like Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956). But people who see it play – here for example – find it a bit disquieting, because the dexterity needed to handle a violin and bow seems something reserved for human beings. Perhaps, like Robbie, it could compensate with a winning personality.

Until scientists figure out the mystery of robotics, they will be more like the excavator and transporter – not remotely human and tightly controlled by their handlers.

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