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After an earthquake and the resulting tsunami devastated Japan’s coastal areas and badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011, plans were quickly made to use robots to perform repairs and cleaning operations. Unfortunately, no existing robots were up to the task of venturing into the complex and unstable environment.
Since then, several efforts were launched to design robots that could get the job done. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) even launched a robot competition, the Robotics Challenge, to design and build robots equipped for rescue efforts. The challenge brought about the development of several robots capable of operating in unstructured, difficult environments.
Tepco, who operates the Fukushima plant, has already made progress in some of the clean up operations. In December 2014, the company finished the removal of fuel rods from reactor 4. Reactor 3, however, was damaged more severely, and the clean up will be “more difficult since it will have to be done completely remotely,” Tepco official Isao Shirai said.
Toshiba, the maker of the worst-hit reactor and who is involved in the cleanup, has now made a two-armed submersible robot for the purpose, the Japan Times reports. The robot will navigate to the submerged reactor 3 and will attempt to clear debris and remove some of the reactor’s fuel rods.
The robotic mission is expected to launch sometime in 2017. If the mission proves unsuccessful, the environment in the reactor will remain too dangerous for humans to venture into. If, however, the robot performs as expected, not only will this be a major step in cleaning the disaster site, it will show that in contrast with the DARPA robots, sometimes a simple, custom designed and made machine is the best solution for a difficult problem.