Hans Greimel
Hans Greimel
Asia Editor, Tokyo
Boldly goes where no man can, in crippled Fukushima plant

Honda's little radiation-proof robot does nuke duty

Boldly goes where no man can, in crippled Fukushima plant

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TOKYO -- In the highly radioactive crucible of Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, there are simply some areas too hot and hazardous for humans to venture for cleanup.

Now, Honda Motor Co. is parlaying its expertise in robotics into a helping hand -- quite literally a telescoping, cancer-impervious surveying arm that will see what's going on inside the dark, dangerous hulk of the ruined reactor building.

Honda today unveiled the remote-controlled robot, which it created with Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. It starts work this week.

Honda engineered the robotic arm. The institute developed the crawler tread and platform that it rides on.

The arm incorporates many sensing technologies Honda developed for its pint-sized humanoid Asimo robot: 3D imaging of the surrounding areas and control systems that allow the arm to absorb impact when it collides against obstacles in the dark.

"The robot uses a zoom camera, laser range finder and dosimeter located at the tip of the arm to confirm detailed images, collect 3D data and identify the source of radiation," Honda said. It's designed to probe high, narrow, hard-to-reach areas.

The gizmo evokes the star minibot in the animated Disney movie "Wall-E." It's a compact box on petite tank treads, brandishing an extendable arm tipped with a camera lens that mimics an eye.

The project was originally reported two years ago by Japan's Asahi newspaper. But at that time, Honda denied such plans.

The idea is to spare human workers dangerous exposure to radiation at Fukushima. The plant was slammed by a tsunami spawned by Japan's March 11, 2011, earthquake, and has been leaking radiation ever since. Some estimates say it will take at least 30 years to fully decommission the polluted plant.

In the early days of the crisis, Japanese officials were criticized for using foreign-made robots, instead of domestically developed ones, to venture into the plant.

It's two years late, but Honda is finally heeding the call.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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