U.S. Robots Aid in Japan Relief Efforts

iRobot has sent four robots, to aid Japan in its relief efforts. Equipped with sensors, arms and cameras, the bots will be able to go where it may not be safe for people. (Image: iRobot) Robots may soon be rolling through Japanese nuclear power plants, testing the air for radiation and evaluating the amount of damage to the facilities.

iRobot, based in Bedford, Mass., shipped four battery-powered robots to Japan late last week to help the Japanese military with their daunting relief efforts in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11. The company, which sent robots to aid rescue and clean-up workers at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attack and during the Gulf oil spill, also has six employees in Japan helping to train others to use the machines.

"Many of our folks got into robotics in the first place just to do this kind of thing," said Tim Trainer, a vice president with iRobot. "We found out they were needed mid-afternoon on that Thursday ... Some folks had departed for the day, and we called them and they turned around and came back. We ordered a lot of pizzas. Found spare parts. Figured out logistics. Packed it all up and had it on a truck 26 hours later."

iRobot is known for its popular autonomous Roomba vacuum cleaner, as well as is business as a military contractor. Company executives chose two different types of rugged robots, the PackBot and the Warrior, and sent two of each to Japan.

The PackBot is a battle-tested machine that is used by hazmat teams, bomb squads and infantry troops. Generally weighing between 45 and 60 pounds, the PackBot moves on tracks, enabling it to climb over debris, rough terrain and even up stairs.

The PackBot also is equipped with hazmat sensors that enable it to detect chemical, biological and radiological contaminants in the environment. The robot then sends data back to its operators about any toxins that have been detected.

The nearly 350-pound Warrior is built to be rugged and carry payloads of more than 150 pounds. It's also designed to do reconnaissance and bomb disposal, according to iRobot.

Trainer noted that all four robots that have been sent to Japan are equipped with multiple cameras and can be operated from up to half a mile away. "People can stay at a safe distance and evaluate obstructions and the security and safety of a building," he added.

He also said the robots could be used for search and rescue missions, and there's a strong possibility that they will be sent into nuclear facilities that have been in crisis since the earthquake and tsunami two weeks ago.

"I believe they are looking at all options and that's certainly one of them," said Trainer. "We're looking at a variety of things, like reconnaissance. [The robots] have cameras on them. There's an arm that could pick things up and move them out of the way or move them to a different area."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said these robots should be valuable tools for a country that is facing so much devastation.

"This is the perfect use for advanced robotics - having them perform recon duties in environments that are unsafe for humans," he explained. "What impresses me about these bots is the flexibility they bring to the table. They can be configured to fight fires, move rubble or deliver items. I can see them performing all of these duties in and around Japan's damaged nuclear reactors.

"This tragedy can be a proof point for the value of these sophisticated machines," he added.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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