Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Toshiba's Robot for #Fukushima I Nuke Plant Is a Dud, Japanese Media Is Mum on Shortcomings as Toshiba Tries to Sell to TEPCO

While all Japanese media seem to have simply copied and pasted Toshiba's PR material and called it a "news article", AP actually reported what the reporter saw at a demonstration held in Yokohama on November 21, 2012.

If you just read the Japanese media, Toshiba's four-legged robot has wonderful features. According to one of the media, Sankei Biz (11/22/2012):

  • It can withstand 100 millisieverts/hour radiation for almost a year, working 10 hours a day;

  • It can move at 1 kilometer/hour, work for 2 hours straight (...wait a minute, you just said it can work 10 hours..);

  • It can climb stairs, carry 20 kilograms of load.

But according to AP's Japanese reporter,

  • During the demonstration, it took a misstep, with one leg frozen up in the air, and the robot had to be carried off the stairs and rebooted;

  • It took one minute to climb one stair;

  • If it falls, it cannot get up by itself.

Duh. AP's Ms. Kageyama correctly asks, "What exactly is the robot capable of doing?"

From Bradenton Herald, quoting AP (11/21/2012; emphasis is mine):

Toshiba shows off robot meant to help at nuke site

By YURI KAGEYAMA — AP Business Writer

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Toshiba Corp. has developed a robot it says can withstand high radiation to work in nuclear disasters, but it's not clear what exactly the robot is capable of doing if and when it gets the go-ahead to enter Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

The four-legged robot can climb over debris and venture into radiated areas off-limits to humans. One significant innovation, Toshiba said, is that its wireless network can be controlled in high radiation, automatically seeking better transmission when reception becomes weak.

But the machine, which looks like an ice cooler on wobbly metal legs, also appears prone to glitches. The robot took a jerky misstep during a demonstration to reporters, freezing with one leg up in the air. It had to be lifted by several people and rebooted.

The robot was also notably slow in climbing a flight of eight steps, cautiously lifting its legs one by one, and taking about a minute to go up each step.

With obstacles that aren't as even and predictable as steps, such as the debris at the Fukushima plant, it may need as much as 10 minutes to figure out how to clear the object, Toshiba acknowledged.

And if it ever falls, it will not be able to get up on its own.

Still, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said it might use the robot to inspect the suppression chamber of the nuclear plant where a devastating meltdown occurred after a mammoth tsunami slammed into northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

Toshiba began developing the robot with hopes it would prove useful in helping to decommission the plant. No human has been able to enter the highly radiated chamber since the tsunami disaster.

"We need this to go in and first check what is there," Toshiba Senior Manager Goro Yanase said Wednesday.

It was unclear when a decision on the robot's use would be made, according to TEPCO, which operates the nuclear plant.

Although what Toshiba showed was top-notch robotics, what the machine might be able to do appeared limited in the face of the disaster's magnitude and complexity.

Japan boasts among the world's most sophisticated robotics technology, exemplified in the walking, talking human-shaped Asimo robot from Honda Motor Co. The inability of such gadgetry to help out with the Fukushima disaster was widely criticized.

Part of the reason is that robots, although suited for tasks such as greeting visitors at dealerships, are too delicate. Their wireless remote-controlled networks are not designed to endure high radiation. Honda has acknowledged Asimo would not have been able to withstand the environment at Fukushima, as some had suggested.

Toshiba's Yanase said the new robot, which has a dosimeter to measure radiation and six cameras, can stay in a 100 millisievert environment for about a year and can tolerate even higher radiated areas for shorter periods. At 100 millisieverts, the rise in cancer cases caused by radiation becomes statistically detectable, although even lower dose radiation is not advisable for people.

The suppression chamber was 360 millisieverts the last time it was measured, TEPCO said.

Decommissioning Fukushima Dai-ichi is expected to take decades.

Reading the Sankei article, Toshiba seems to be pressuring TEPCO to take its robot and use it (somehow) at Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, as Toshiba expands its portfolio of post-nuclear-disaster technologies that includes gamma-ray camera, SARRY, and the new multi-nuclide decontamination facility (ALPS).

Why does a robot have to be a hunky gadget loaded with stuff and why does it need to climb stairs to begin with? A host of tiny, self-organizing and collaborating drones still gets my vote.

If the robot has to have legs, MIT spin-off's BigDog is not bad either, able to run 5 miles per hour, carrying loads:

Compare this with the Toshiba's robot...

(H/T Twitter follower @metro172)


Maju said...

The Gringo bot is incredibly good.

It has a surrealistic feeling because the legs and movements are so human- or animal-like that you are unconsciously expecting a real body and head (or even two of them) on top and then there's nothing.

If I ever lose my legs, I want a pair from that BigDog bot, really!

wren said...

Boston Dynamics has several robots better than bigdog, but I think the last place they would want them to be used is Japan, or maybe China.

That is kind of sad.

Check out their prototype for Atlas:

or Cheetah prototype:

Anonymous said...

On May 25, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy challenged the American people to send a manned spacecraft to the moon before the end of the decade. This goal was achieved in July of 1969.

If the 1960's Americans can develop the technology to carry men safely from Earth to the Moon and back, certainly modern Japan should be able to develop the technology to deploy a working robot into a damaged nuclear reactor. If Japan commits itself to getting it done, orgainze approriately, and fund the project to do it.

But like the US moonshot, cleaning up after TEPCO in Northern and Eastern Japan will require a national committment much greater than anything we have seen to date. No one company, even powerful Toshiba, can do it alone.

And it will require leaders. Not leaders like Noda, who hasn't the nerve to stand up to the nuclear mura, and not leaders like Abe who is so hard-hearted that he cannot hear the voices of the Fukushima women as they describe the terror and indignity that the Japan's nuclear holocost is inflicting on them and their children (he wants to restart ALL of the reactors that are "safe." The good ladies from Fukushima will tell you that NONE of them can ever be safe enough to justify the chance that this same fate will befall other people elsewhere). And it certainly doesn't need leaders like Ishihara who would rather pick a fight with China than acknowledge or address the corruption inside Japan that enabled TEPCO and the nuclear mura to operate unsafe nuclear power plants in the most earthquake-prone corner of the planet.

Where is Japan's JFK? Wherever she is, I hope she will come forward and save us.

arevamirpal::laprimavera said...

I was just watching the video of Japan's Self Defense Force on March 11, 2011, right after the earthquake and tsunami. One middle-ranking officer in Tohoku region was saying that things would have been a lot different, if only they had a rope ladder, or a step ladder" to rescue people stranded on the second floor of the half broken houses after the tsunami.

I'd say ladders first, before they dare think about robots.

wren said...

In the Ghost in the Shell TV series Japanese micro-machines cleaned up radiation. The American Empire was trying to steal them, or something.

Why is it that in real life, Japanese robots can't even seem to get up the stairs?

Maju said...

"I'd say ladders first, before they dare think about robots"...


"Why is it that in real life, Japanese robots can't even seem to get up the stairs?"

Obedience and conforming to the norm do not go well with innovation and creativity, I guess.

This is of course something for which individuals vary wildly but that is also a major point of contrast between Western and Eastern cultures, not now but through all history. Westerners are no good to keep a unified long-lasting empire like, say, China but then someone like Zheng He with his thousand mega-ships' Treasure Fleet could not do what Elkano did with a rotten carrack and 21 men.

Unlike the Anonymous commenter above who seems to be waiting for some providential figure to save Japan, someone like Elkano would just take charge and get things done himself. Or at least try.

Just saying...

Scott said...

Looks like Japanese industry really dropped the ball here when their best effort is the sloth like wonky footed robot in the video above. I think the American company had the better idea of developing a more conventional robust robot rather than something that is no more than window dressing like Aibo and the other automatons like it.

I say let's give Boston Dynamics a shot at releasing a radiation hardened version of their Big Dog unit. I'd wager we'd have something useable in no time if the Japanese government requested it.

Anonymous said...

I think they meant to write "it can walk 10 hours a day". And considering what we're up against, 100ms/hour doesn't sound like much.

It's not as much a matter of the technology as it's a matter of the society wielding it. In reality, we're often held back by bureaucracy, economy, arrogance, greed, ethics, etc.

Anonymous said...

... if one compares "big dog" with the actually used robots and approaches to decommision the plant one gets the feeling, the "world leaders" don't take the whole "fukushima thing" (or at least our worries) too serious... it can't be a thing of the _costs_ or the _technical knowledge_ after seeing "the big dog walkin' n' prevailin' boldly"... i wonder what it is, that they know or seem to know, that the rest of us doesn't know. :D

Anonymous said...

So Toshiba has built a companion to keep the lost Qince robot company, that's nice. It can "work" for 10 hours but it can only move for two of those ten hours at the speed of a severely arthritic Granny. Even if it can move for 10 hours it is still as hobbled as a 150 year old man. It can function in environments up to 100 millisieverts, too bad there are areas inside measuring in the hundreds of millisieverts if not full sieverts. Oh, and the wifi connection will just choose another channel if interference becomes a problem, too bad radiation causes broad spectrum interference. This thing sounds like a step backwards from camera balloons and iBots.

As for Big Dog it was funded by DARPA to help soldiers kill people that's why it exists. If BD was proposed as a radiation clean up robot it wouldn't have made it off the drawing board. BD isn't radiation hardened and hardening it isn't a simple matter BD relies on lots of sensors to preform its magic and many of them can't be shielded they would have to be completely redesigned. In addition BD is a packbot it doesn't have the ability to manipulate debris. There is a reason that radiation hardened "robots" operate on a tether and can't do jack shit, there is no money in cleaning up a mess. The robots used to clean up Three Mile island weren't even as nice as the ibots in use now and they took years to clean up a relatively intact reactor. The industry swore both TMI and Chernobyl would spawn new fantastic robotic clean up methods but what they have given us is one step above a child's science fair project done over a hurried weekend.

Japan's only hope for useful robots is to find evidence of an al-Qaeda terror cell operating inside the RPV's then they'll be hip deep in DARPA funded drones and bots of every description.

m a x l i said...

"It can climb stairs."

Wow! If it will ever be able to do this, then we need entire armies of daring humans to go in first and build those stairs, so that our metallic friend can follow next. From the pictures of the reactors I remember there is not very much you could call stairs but mostly a mess of by explosions shattered and twisted cement and metal.

I strongly agree with arevamirpal here in that point: Why climb stairs, when you can have tiny flying objects capable to move freely in 3 dimensions which could do things like taking measurements and photographs? But for such enterprises to have any prospect of any success, they need to be the second step after the official admission from high up, that we humans have again and again utterly failed in the attempt to gain electricity from splitting atoms and it's high time to abandon this dangerous, unmanageable and costly technology.

Anonymous said...

I get the impression that their aim in creating such a miserable robot was solely to placate the public's concerns and give them false hope.

If they'd admitted and accepted the seriousness of the situation from the beginning, they'd have probably come up with much more effective solutions by now.

Anonymous said...

Flying robots would be great for seeing what exactly we have in the middle of the rubble. Maybe even a worm or snake like robot that can slither over and through the debris to reach tight spots. A robot that can climb stairs won't do much good in such a hostile environment.

Greyhawk said...

This seems to be in line with the half-assed effort TEPCO and the Japanese government have been putting forth. They've been doing everything wrong so far, why change now?

Atomfritz said...

Sadly Toshiba didn't show what their robot does if it gets kicked. I guess it would have looked funny!

Atomfritz said...

Looking at the today's news and that sad video of this arthritic Toshiba robot in contrast to BigDog and the like, I somehow doubt that Japan is still a robotics leader.

Look at the Samsung war robots, guarding the border to North Korea:

Look at the Israeli reconnaissance and battle robots:

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