The Tech That Could Help Save Fukushima: iRobot's PackBot


Cousins to the Roomba, that cute little hands-off robot that bounces around your living room, vacuuming as it goes, PackBots are a series of military 'bots designed by Massachusetts-based iRobot. More than 2,000 of these robots, which use a videogame-style controller that any operator can quickly and easily adapt to, are currently stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq where they're used scout and assist various teams. And now a few have joined the team currently cleaning up the devastated Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Together with the 710 Warrior, its heavier sister 'bot, and three different models -- the TALON, the Dragon Runner and the BOBCAT -- from QinetiQ, the PackBot is part of a small army of helpers.

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With a camera head equipped with multiple cameras, audio sensors and laser pointers and a body capable of withstanding a drop from six feet onto solid concrete, the basic model of the PackBot, the Scout, is a welcome addition to Fukushima. Sending a human into the core of the power plant, which was hit hard by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake last month, would be too dangerous; even fully outfitted in hazmat gear, he or she would "soak up a year's worth of radiation after spending only five minutes in the area," according to Popular Mechanics. A robot? Well, we don't have to worry about that.

From deep in the heart of Fukushima iRobot's PackBot can measure radioactivity, sift through piles of debris and stream video back to its human operators at a command center a safe distance away. At an event last week, "Robots to the Rescue," Tim Trainer, iRobot's vice president of operations of government and industrial robots, explained how his team had repurposed the PackBot specifically for Fukushima.

"iRobot outfitted its 510 PackBot with the company's full hazmat kit: a collection of sensors rigged to detect environmental oxygen levels, temperature, gamma radiation, and hazardous materials and chemicals," according to Popular Mechanics. "With a base about the size of a carry-on suitcase, the relatively lightweight PackBot (between 48 and 60 pounds) can weave through wreckage while streaming live video and environmental data down hundreds of feet of fiber-optic cable."

From inside of the third reactor at Fukushima, the PackBot has already reported back some surprising findings. Radiation there is at an extreme level; according to the Japan Times, the core of the reactor is giving off between 26 and 57 millisieverts of radiation per hour. For comparison, a reactor worker is only allowed exposure to 250 millisieverts for an entire year.


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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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