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Japan Robotics Hardware

Fukushima Robot Operator Tells His Story 57

An anonymous reader writes "An anonymous robot operator at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant has kept a blog describing in candid detail his day-to-day life at the crippled facility, including robot training exercises and actual radiation-survey and clean-up missions. The blog was recently deleted, but some copies existed around the web and IEEE Spectrum has translated and published portions of it in English. The blog shows that although the operators use remote-controlled robots, they have to work in areas of high radiation, using protective gear and shielded trucks. They also rely on a great deal of improvisation, and there have been a few incidents that put the robot missions at risk."
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Fukushima Robot Operator Tells His Story

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  • by hcs_$reboot ( 1536101 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @02:53AM (#37188314)
    Until March 2011, in our minds, Japan was the leading country when it comes to robots (remember all these Sony exhibitions...).

    I cannot help but remember the Tepco wait-and-see attitude after the March 11 tsunami: we were all wondering
    - why do they send people instead of robots to work within the power plant perimeter?
    - why Tepco doesn't manage to have an army of robots ready to intervene?
    - why Tepco took that much time to require international help in this regard?

    However, I'm afraid the problem is not only technical.
    In these huge Japanese organizations decisions taken at the highest level are often based on a kind of "event grid".
    When the "event" matches a deja-vu scenario, or a well-known anticipated situation, the solution will be implemented fast and clean.
    But when an unexpected event arises, an incredibly slow and possibly inadequate response is likely to be given.

    I always thought "this is Japan - like it or leave it...". But when it comes to radiation in a power plant, I worry.
    • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:15AM (#37188412) Homepage Journal
      Actually the problems are largely technical. The plant was designed to be serviced by humans. Even the most humanoid robots are still incredibly inflexible and thus it is incredibly difficult to get robots into a lot of the places in the plant, let alone operate a lot of the equipment. Furthermore, even with the most advanced robots, there are still latencies involved with the video feed, input response, etc. If they could do it all with robots they would, but they cannot.
      • Even beyond the technical problems, the problems are largely social. Investigate why they have such massive turnover in politics these days. Its the same reasons the entire situation exists at all. As such, I have little doubt, by extension, these same problems also hider a technological response - at least to some degree.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Actually, most integrated circuits don't work well when exposed to radiations. They provoke single-event upsets [wikipedia.org], which can, for instance, turn a 0 into a 1 in a register or a SRAM. ECC or parity check can help mitigating the risk, but they will not suffice. That's why the semiconductor industry proposes "space-grade" components which are radiation hardened. Unfortunately, these components are about 10x more expensive than their commercial-grade versions and only a tiny fraction of what's available in commer
      • by subreality ( 157447 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @05:15AM (#37188900)

        They could have gotten by with consumer-grade parts. There's no substitute for rad-hardened parts on satellites because launching another is very expensive, but that wasn't the case here.

        In Fukushima, they could have done what hundreds of hobbyists do: Run down to Radio Shack, get a cheap toy helicopter, strap a camera to it. This is all analog tech, so there's no OS to crash if the circuits pick up some noise, as long as it's not so much nose that the thing fries entirely - and even that would give you a pretty useful bit of information.

        Possible failure scenarios:

        • * Helicopter fails when it gets close and drops to the ground. Solution: Get another helicopter.
        • * Helicopter goes haywire and crashes headfirst into the spent fuel pool. Solution: This building is already blown right the fuck up; the mechanical damage is utterly irrelevant, and worst case, the li-poly batteries might slightly contaminate the water. Deal with that later. Get another helicopter.

        Cost: Less than $1000 a pop for a really nice toy chopper and a very decent video camera.
        Risks: Essentially none, as above.
        Rewards: Nice up-close pictures instead of fast manned fly-bys hundreds of meters away.

        Even if that plan gets vetoed, there are commercially available rad-hardened UAVs and ground recon bots. All they had to do was google it, call someone up, and get a handful flown out there. I'm sure they could get a few bots for $1M, or even for free given the publicity. That's essentially what the eventually did - why did they wait?

        • by X-Gamer ( 937169 )
          Notice how your radios, cellphones and devices that work based on radio signals tend to fail inside tunnels. Radio frequencies have very limited penetration depth against concretes and the likes, out of which buildings are constructed. Given that it's a reinforced powerplant with very thick walls, I doubt you'll get a range of more than 20 metres even with the operator standing right outside the entrance.
          • Sadly, people have watched far too much TV where they constantly see cell phones and radios used without question in situations where they commonly, absolutely, would never world. These situations occur in shows ranging from 24, to CSI, to SG1, and everything in between. As such, people have a false expectation for technology to magically work when in reality, its pure ignorance to remotely hope.

        • They had UAVs up and running quickly (in TEPCO time) after the disaster, and (according to TFA) TEPCO has its own fleet of UAV helicopters, though I remember the first pictures were taken using one of those US military planes. Planes and helicopters aren't very useful when you're trying to get inside the building though. Even if you could fly around inside the building, ever try opening a door with a heli-/quadcopter? The iRobot things they use can (clumsily) interact with the world.

          • by subreality ( 157447 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @06:37AM (#37189212)

            They had plane-type UAVs do some fly-bys at a hundred meters or so about two weeks in; the helicopter-type capable of close-up pictures weren't used for over a month [engadget.com].

            I agree about the problems going in the building - there's no way a heli could do it. The PackBot is the right tool for the entry job. iRobot sent them about a week in, but TEPCO waited weeks more before using them. Training is the only excuse I can think of, and it's pretty thin: I'm sure someone experienced with them would have volunteered to work the first couple weeks until TEPCO employees were ready to go.

            • Well, volunteers were probably in relatively short supply considering the extreme hazards of the job. But yeah, I'm not sure wtf they were (are) doing dawdling that long into the disaster. Must be a combination of a very broken process, people desperately trying to cover their asses, total lack of preparation for the "impossible" and maybe somewhat of a Japanese thing. That said, hell knows if any of the other developed countries would have fared better.

              • Personally, I'd have volunteered in a minute if I had a specialized skill that would help that way.

                I think your CYA theory is closest to the truth. It's not just a fear of failure; it's a fear of looking embarrassingly like a bunch of amateurs on TV if they don't perform smoothly. The Japanese have a lot of pride, with all the good and bad that entails.

        • by nojayuk ( 567177 )

          Using that "disposable robot" approach eventually the operators would need to send in a specialised robot tow-truck to remove all the dead/crashed/jammed robots blocking access to the bits of the buildings that they need to get into. And if the tow-truck robot got stuck...

          Disaster engineering is more tricky than shoulder-surfers often comprehend; the matrix of decisions on how to solve big problems like last year's Gulf spill or the current Fukushima situation starts with "Will doing this kill a lot of pe

          • ... All of which is why I never suggested it for going inside.

            For just getting pictures looking through the holes in the walls, I think the balance of Need vs Risk was well in favor of Need when they were running blind and there was considerable Risk from not acting.

            All that still doesn't answer why they didn't move in much sooner with the commercial robots that are designed for this.

        • They could have gotten by with consumer-grade parts.

          Absolutely false, consumer grade electronics will not function at all in the high rad environment around the damaged Fukushima reactors or fuel pools, with thousands of charged particles per second passing through each square centimeter. This will flip logic circuits including memory cell states. This is why they had to wait for shipped rad-hardened robots.
          • This is why they had to wait for shipped rad-hardened robots.

            Is there any evidence that the robots their using, iRobot PackBots, are radiation hardened? I am yet to see any. It seems to me that they were simply unprepared for the situation.

          • by Cyberax ( 705495 )

            They certainly would. Operators used toy tanks to get a sample from hot uranium lava in Chernobyl or to move cameras into inaccessible spots.

            You overestimate the severity of radiation, analog circuits and simple digital circuits can take tremendous volumes of abuse.

            • sure, old analog toys would be fine. But I have practical experience with nuke plant and high energy physics environments and digital mos-fets getting wacked up
          • First, analog electronics don't *have* memory cells. Basic RC control systems don't use a single byte of memory; they're just FM radios that demodulate a few overlaid waves into a few analog outputs. Interference will make the controls twitch a little, but the scale of these circuits is enormous compared to RAM, and so the interference is very small.

            Second, you're seriously overestimating the amount of radiation. Things will malfunction terribly if they're directly over an exposed core or otherwise getti

            • true that, but I was speaking of anything with digital fet IC, which is just about everything now. the radio controlled cars and planes of my childhood would be fine
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I always thought "this is Japan - like it or leave it...". But when it comes to radiation in a power plant, I worry.

      The "Japanese culture is different, so we work in a different way" line is Japanese propaganda. Check out "The Enigma of Japanese Power" (1989) [wikipedia.org] by Karel van Wolferen. I used that book once as the base for a great (well, it was my best and the players thought it was great) tabletop roleplaying campaign.

    • Until March 2011, in our minds, Japan was the leading country when it comes to robots (remember all these Sony exhibitions...).

      Well, that's what they said, but it's clear that is NOT the case, because they didn't even have a Japanese robot at Fukushima until July for testing, let alone operating. Clearly, the USA is the leading country when it comes to robots...

      I always thought "this is Japan - like it or leave it...". But when it comes to radiation in a power plant, I worry.

      if you read the blog it's clear that political business as usual is proceeding normally.

      I am getting more and more firmly behind the theory that one or more persons or organizations is actually trying to render the earth inhabitable by man...

      • I am getting more and more firmly behind the theory that one or more persons or organizations is actually trying to render the earth inhabitable by man...

        R. Giskard Reventlov and R. Daneel Olivaw would like to have a chat with you.

      • I've only ever held the Japanese robot perception when it came to human acting robots. They make bi pedal robots that can walk up stairs, robots that can play the violin, or robots that are intended to help care for the elderly or infirmed. While these types of robotics are highly advanced that are about as useful to helping at Fukushima as an infant child.

        • by tibit ( 1762298 )

          The violin player is completely preprogrammed. It uses no audio feedback like any human would, and from what I could see at the demonstration in the Toyota plant, it doesn't use force feedback for anything but path-following control purposes. It doesn't use any sort of a learning algorithm. As far as "playing" goes, it only maintains reasonable pressure on the bow.

    • by fbjon ( 692006 )
      If you actually read the blog, you'll see he mentions that he feels people sometimes want to use the robots just to show off, even though the same job has already been performed safely and more quickly by humans.
    • Japan does a lot of research into robots. However it does extremely little research into practical robotics. They're more into making robots look and act more human, serving ice cream, and so on. Americans look at robots and ask "what can it do?" whereas Japanese look at robots and say "sugoi na!!"

      • by tsotha ( 720379 )

        Japan's research into robotics is a long time frame project. The Japanese population is shrinking and getting older, and they won't have enough young people to fill all the mundane, low-skilled work that needs to get done. The skating robots and robots that serve ice cream are just demonstrators. What they're really after is robots that can take care of old people in their homes and robots that can do mundane jobs in facilities that were designed for humans. It's not really about the quest for something

  • "A sense of humor" (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:04AM (#37188364)
    Depressing as it was to hear that the blog was removed, I confess that I loved the ending.

    After paging through several stories of how exciting it is to learn new skills - even while opposed by dysfunctional management, impossible deadlines, the occasional mistake, and co-workers who insist on running over network cabling, the blog ends with:

    You know we have a sense of humor right?

    Yes, we do. Some things in the technology business - and in humor - are universal.

    Thank you, Anonymous Robot Operator-san, for the work you and your team are doing, and for your diligence and honesty in documenting it.

  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @03:21AM (#37188448)

    One thing I got out of reading the shorter summary, is that it might be a good idea to build a very compact robot whose sole purpose was to be positioned to relay wireless control signals - or else have wireless nodes that could be dropped behind the robot in a few places to extend range.

    Really interesting.

    • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

      AFAIK, stair-climbing and rough terrain robots are relatively easy as long as you can keep the weight down, making them useless for most jobs. But a job like "relaying wireless signals" wouldn't require any heavy equipment, so perhaps a nice idea.

      • by jafac ( 1449 )

        It would be even nicer if the wireless bridge robot ran off of ionizing radiation in the environment - lol!

    • I wonder if there is really a market for these because they could be easy and cheap to build. Something like a Wowwee Rovio but with stair-climbing treads instead of those cheapo omni-wheels. Once the robot has a proper wifi adapter the rest is just software. If everything can run from an ARM dev board (like a Pandaboard or Raspberry Pi) you can stuff a big battery in them and they'll run for a long time.

      • I wonder if there is really a market for these because they could be easy and cheap to build.

        That's true, but it's no detraction from there being a market since someone has to put that all together, along with putting it together in such a way that control is pretty robust even in very radioactive environments...

        It's probably more of a sub-buisness for the people that make the robots though, I don't know that you could succeed long as an independent company. Plus you would need startup capital to buy the v

    • hah, automatic safety system trips reactor offline during moderate quake - big deal. It would be interesting to see how a typical USA old gen II plant (GE or CE) holds up during a 7.5 or greater quake, but we might have a long wait for that.
  • by hackertourist ( 2202674 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @06:24AM (#37189154)

    The blog makes several interesting observations. First, operators having to be close to the plant because of communication difficulties. Now I realize I'm being an armchair engineer here, but the first thing I'd have done was to assemble longer cables, or find other means to increase the distance.
    If this isn't possible, maybe it's an indication that we need a different control mechanism for these robots. A proprietary protocol would be more difficult to jury-rig than e.g. Ethernet.

    Second, shielding. Is there no way to shield the operators? If you have to put a control cabin in a high-radiation environment, why not stack sandbags, drums of water, concrete blocks etc. around it? If necessary, use shipping containers to prefabricate the shielding, so you can minimize exposure time during the installation of the cabin.

    Third, the buildings are difficult to access with robots. Tethered robots won't work in elevators (if the elevators even work). I get that you usually want to minimize the holes in the containment structure, but perhaps there should be a bit more foresight going into designing these buildings?

    • It's probably just easier to safeguard the operators with hazmat suits rather than introduce an extra link in the communications chain. The thing is, taking some low-level gamma radiation isn't all that bad. As long as you're not ingesting or absorbing radioactive materials there's not a lot of danger from spending modest amounts of time in elevated radiation. It certainly needs to be monitored, but the threat can be kept below statistically significant levels.

    • by subreality ( 157447 ) on Wednesday August 24, 2011 @07:23AM (#37189410)

      Inferring from TFA, the bots are able to run over WiFi, and one of the ways they increased range was by dragging an AP into the building. They can also run over an optical fiber - I'd assume that's also Ethernet, since it'd be silly to use a whole different technology when it's already controlled by 802 frames. I can't imagine why they couldn't scrounge some repeaters.

      Shielding isn't too big a deal. You don't take that much damage from direct radiation unless you're standing near a large emitter... Just check your dosimeter before you set up camp. The much bigger hazard is inhaling particles of alpha-emitter which a) do a lot of damage when they're inside you and b) keep doing it for a long time. Fortunately, that's easy to handle with cleanroom-type particle filters.

    • by jafac ( 1449 )

      Yes, there is a great way to shield operators. Keep them a couple of hundred feet away. Most harmful alpha and beta radiation is stopped by several inches-to-feet of air. Most gamma is stopped in tens of feet of air. Even better with lead underwear, walls of steel-drums full of water (hydrogen nucleii are pretty good at stopping neutrons.)

      As far as foresight goes - to designing the buildings? These buildings were designed in the 1960's.
      Then again, at Chernobyl, they had to mine a hundreds-of-feet-long tu

  • The author, who goes by the initials S.H., also used the blog to vent his frustrations with inept supervisors and unreasonable schedules, though he maintains a sense of humor, describing in one post how he punched a hole on a wall while driving a robot and, in another entry, how a drunken worker slept in his room by mistake

    Is it just me, or does this seem very, very soviet? Bureaucratic impediments, incompetent people in high positions, drunken workers around highly dangerous areas, and a weird sense of humor around all of it... haven't we seen this already?

    • by fbjon ( 692006 )
      Jesus H. Christ. What part of your quote does not apply to every western nation?
      • why do you put "western" in there, every country with a government and that has some industry has that. From the poorest SE asian one to african to middle east to south america......where does this NOT happen?
        • by fbjon ( 692006 )
          Most of /.'s readers are western, and the OP seemed to be under some us-compared-to-them illusion.
  • For real updates on Fukushima and nuclear tech in general see http://fairewinds.com/updates [fairewinds.com]
  • Doumo Arigatou Mr. Robaato Opareitoru.


Don't get suckered in by the comments -- they can be terribly misleading. Debug only code. -- Dave Storer