In 2011, a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake all but decimated the Pacific Coast of Tohoku, Japan, including the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. A catastrophic meltdown ensued. Many tons of nuclear fuel, boiled down to a radioactive lava, corroded the steel surrounding the facility’s three reactors. Today, the cleanup effort is still projected to take several decades.
Send in the robots
Initially, with such high radiation levels, the reactors were too hot for anyone to go in for cleanups. It was a matter of months before nuclear technicians could enter with their protective gear to assess damages and find where the fuel had gone.
The Japanese government assembled a host of its trusted private sector technology vendors to develop machines that would go where technicians could not. These included variations of aerial, aquatic, and ground systems equipped with cameras to survey the plant. It proved difficult, however, to navigate a completely unknown area remotely; the unpredictable, rubbly terrain stopped some robots in their tracks, and the radiation was extreme enough to disable the cameras on others.
Situations like these are why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed standard test methods for robots, which the Japanese government is now beginning to apply directly to their Fukushima cleanup efforts.
The suite of S&T-NIST robot standards is sweeping the world, delivering insights to a wide range of responders and operators—although most notably in Japan. By testing their robots with these tools, operators can build on their understanding of what missions require of robots, and as a result, they will be able to maximize the true potential of these machines.