Inside the Drone Missions to Fukushima

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The Honeywell T-Hawk, an 18-pound flying machine, was used to explore the disaster site at Japan's devastated nuclear power plant

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The team of people on the asphalt road near Fukushima were outfitted in protective gear. They wore Tyvex suits and three pairs of gloves. Their ankles and wrists were taped, and their hoods were taped around the respirators through which they breathed. They carried with them a small machine that bears an unlikely resemblance to Homer Simpson's beer-drinking hat.

All around, there was devastation. The crisis in Japan had entered its fourth week and while immediate relief efforts to help survivors of the earthquake and tsunami were succeeding, there was still no end in sight to the nuclear problem at the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex that the double-fisted natural disaster had caused. The reactors at Fukushima had delivered surprise after surprise as the situation spiraled downwards. Though by early April, it appeared things had stabilized a bit, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the world's nuclear engineers needed more data about what was happening at the plants.

A key problem at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima is that decision makers don't have enough information. The radiation danger leads to knowledge gaps because humans can't get close enough to install new sensors or poke around the reactor sites themselves. The photos and videos the Japanese operators ended up working from couldn't give them what they needed.

Which brings us back to the machine and the people in the full-body protective gear and three pairs of gloves. The little unmanned aerial vehicle is a Honeywell T-Hawk, an 18-pound flying machine that is a bit like a big fan powered by a two-stroke gasoline engine. The T-Hawk carries radios and communication equipment in one pod and avionics equipment in the other. The T-Hawk's payload is a gimbaled camera with a 10x zoom that can rotate in any direction.

Born of DARPA, the drone's new mission was to fly right into the heart of the Fukushima complex and get images of what was going wrong.

The operations center was simple. Honeywell's Brad Welch set up a folding table for his equipment. Then, he unfolded a metal chair for himself and sat down with the Panasonic Toughbook that controlled the T-Hawk. He pulled out the stylus he used to manipulate the touchscreen, and was ready to go.

Outside, his partners Lindsey Ballard and Jeffrey Lumpkin were starting up the UAV. The machine was mounted on a stand and one of them pulled its starter cord. Once the engine was running, they set it down on its thin landing legs.

Welch could hear the T-Hawk start up, whining like a weed wacker, and started ticking through his preflight checklist. Meanwhile, the machine itself went through its own self-test, checking its fuel and batteries. When they both finished, Welch sent the T-Hawk a launch command and, after a ten-second delay, it buzzed straight up into the air. They were on their way to the reactor. They had forty minutes. Then, the gas would run out.

It wasn't like Afghanistan or Iraq, Welch knew. He'd spent thirteen months training T-Hawk pilots over there, and it was easier to operate in those conditions. For one, he didn't have three pairs of gloves and a PPE suit on. And, once he got up in the air in Afghanistan or the desert outside Albuquerque, where he trained, he could pretty much just fly. In Japan, there were a lot more obstructions, so it was going to be tougher.

And there was the problem of the wind. The UAV weighs as much as a small dog, so it's susceptible to getting blown around. If the winds get above 23 miles per hour, the drone could be in trouble, and it can't land in more than 15 mph winds. Even at lesser wind speeds, Welch had to keep the pods properly aligned to avoid turning the T-Hawk into a big sail.

Flying the T-Hawk is not like flying a plane. Welch flies by the video streaming back from the drone's camera, glancing at  a few other readings like his altitude, wind speed and battery power. There is no joystick. Once the drone is aloft, a rosette appears on his screen with his commands. He can give the plane instructions to go forward at a given speed, or rotate, or hover. He can point at something and keep the T-Hawk's camera focused on it while the UAV moves or bring up a map and tell it to go to a specific location. At any time, he can tell the drone to hover in midair and stare. It's during those moments when the drone imaged the devastation at Fukushima. As Welch flew, his colleagues could review the video to make sure they'd gotten what they needed.

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When fuel ran low, the T-Hawk would come back to their makeshift base on whatever patch of asphalt they'd been able to commandeer. It would slowly drift down, barely even kicking up any debris until it was just a few feet off the ground before sticking its landing on its four thin, curved legs. It was a process that Welch's team repeated time and again during their 18 days in Japan, each of them taking turns piloting the vehicles.

Unfortunately, Welch couldn't share the specifics of the missions his team flew. The cone of secrecy around Fukushima extends far and wide. We don't get to know where they launched from or what their camera targets were. He couldn't discuss whether their operations center had a roof over it or not, or whether it was a tent. We don't even know how many flights they made, though he confirmed it was "a bunch."

For Welch, back stateside, two things stood out about the experience. The attitude of the Japanese people and the devastation of their country.

"Looking at the site itself, the magnitude of the devastation was the thing that really stuck in my mind," Welch said. "It's amazing when you look at it to think about the power that was generated to create such devastation.

Here's what Welch saw:

These are images taken by the T-Hawk released by TEPCO. In addition to 12 photos, there are four video clips in a separate post.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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