Inside the Drone Missions to Fukushima

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.

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