Skip to main content

DARPA’s Robotic Answer to Fukushima

Of course, our favorite fictional robot is the ED-209 from the original RoboCop (1987). It’s a slightly glitchy death machine that cannot be turned off reliably and has considerable difficulty managing stairs. It’s also one of the last great uses of stop motion animation before the arrival of CGI, but that’s another discussion.

I was reminded of the ED-209 by this bit from a report from the DARPA Robotics Challenge:

Before the games began, a DARPA representative said something pretty funny: He expected most or all of the robots to fall down at some point. And he was right.

Which is only reinforced by the rules of contest:

The rules are simple — each humanoid robot has one hour to score eight points for various tasks, which include driving a car, opening a door, pulling a lever and climbing some stairs.

Climbing some stairs! The reverse of what foiled ED.

Anyway, the DARPA challenge was motivated by the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

"Robots weren't able to help in the Fukushima nuclear disaster," says Arati Prabahakar, the head of DARPA.

This isn’t exactly true. Here’s a Popular Mechanics story about three such robots. But let’s assume Prabahakar means a robot able to do the kinds of things the challenge means to test, which has to do with quick disaster recovery. The Fukushima robots were used later on.

Interestingly, the teams did not create the physical robots. Most entries used Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot as their hardware base. What they did do is devise the sensors and software to run everything.

The winner of the challenge (and a cool $2 million):

By the end of the day Saturday, the second and last full day of the finals of a three-year-long search for a champion, Team KAIST, from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, had claimed the $2 million top prize and permanent rights to brag that it had bested worthy competitors from august institutions like Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and others across the world.

Congratulations to the Koreans. If I understand correctly, Team KAIST did not use the Atlas robot, but a home-grown variety called the Hubo. Both types of robot are bi-pedal. American teams took silver and bronze, but the goal here was really to advance the art and science of robotics to better ensure public safety. Whether that’s at a nuclear plant or in other applications, it’s a worthy international undertaking.

---

Human acceptance of our future inhuman overlords still has a ways to go: the most popular YouTube video of the event was a compilation of robots falling over (just as the DARPA official predicted would happen). Go figure: perhaps director Paul Verhoeven demonstrated a certain prescience in RoboCop.

Comments

jim said…
That's kind of unfair to most of them who are more victims of a cold dead systems failure than actual clumsiness which IS funny!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear Is a Long-Term Investment for Ohio that Will Pay Big

With 50 different state legislative calendars, more than half of them adjourn by June, and those still in session throughout the year usually take a recess in the summer. So springtime is prime time for state legislative activity. In the next few weeks, legislatures are hosting hearings and calling for votes on bills that have been battered back and forth in the capital halls.

On Tuesday, The Ohio Public Utilities Committee hosted its third round of hearings on the Zero Emissions Nuclear Resources Program, House Bill 178, and NEI’s Maria Korsnick testified before a jam-packed room of legislators.


Washingtonians parachuting into state debates can be a tricky platform, but in this case, Maria’s remarks provided national perspective that put the Ohio conundrum into context. At the heart of this debate is the impact nuclear plants have on local jobs and the local economy, and that nuclear assets should be viewed as “long-term investments” for the state. Of course, clean air and electrons …