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Sunday, May 29, 2011
New role for robots in Japan
Japan has long been a leader in developing industrial and therapeutic robots, with Sony's AIBO dog first sold in 1999 and the therapeutic robot seal Paro in use in hospitals and nursing homes in Japan and abroad.
More recently a robotic "power-assist" suit is being developed for Japan's elderly farmers, to aid in the physical labor involved in tending and harvesting their crops.
Why then did Tokyo Electric Power Co. turn to American Talon and PackBot robots to first go into high radiation areas of its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant?
It wasn't until May that the more compact and maneuverable Japanese-made Quince robot was sent out and "Team Nippon" — a truck with a camera measuring gamma ray radiation working in conjunction with Talon's GPS mapping function — established. Other foreign robots with experience with radioactive debris, robot Bobcat loaders and Swedish Brokk demolition robots, are to be used to break up and remove large pieces of contaminated rubble.
The answer lies in differences in military funding between the United States and Japan — the U.S. Department of Defense has bought more than 3,500 PackBots for use in detecting and deactivating bombs in Afghanistan/Iraq — and in the Japanese nuclear industry's insistence that nuclear power is "safe."
In fact, a MITI-funded project to develop Japanese robots for use in nuclear accidents was launched after two workers were killed in an accident at a uranium-reprocessing facility in Tokaimura in 1999. Six robots were built at a cost of ¥3 billion, but they ended up being abandoned after Tepco and other power companies showed no interest in purchasing them. They foresaw no possibility of accidents in which robots would be needed.
That myth of nuclear safety has now been exploded in Japan, and such technology will now be a growth area.
Perhaps the development of international cooperation since the earthquake and tsunami — at Fukushima, in Tohoku-Pacific relief and rescue operations in which American armed forces and Japanese Self-Defense Forces worked side by side, and in joint Japan-U.S. searches with undersea robots for bodies trapped below wreckage off the coast — is one silver lining of the disaster.