FUKISHIMA AND THE FUTURE OF ROBOTS
By Len Zuga
Mar 11. Two items plucked from the ether recently clearly illustrate limitations of the state of the art in ground robotics and UGV operations. The first, from IEEE Spectrum’s ongoing coverage of Japan’s earthquake and nuclear emergency, Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?
(http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robots/japan-robots-to-fix-troubled-nuclear-reactors ) deals with the limitations of mobility in non structured and rubble strewn environments; the sensitivity of electronics that have not been hardened against the effects of radiation on their operation; and finally the historical lack of investment by the nuclear power industry in developing robotic solutions to address nuclear disasters such as the Fukushima incident.
These issues are all addressed in the larger context of my forthcoming market analysis Global Mobile Defense, Rescue & Security Robots – Sensors & Payloads – Markets & Technologies Outlook 2011-2021 to be published by Market Intel Group ( www.marketintelgroup.com ). But I want to briefly bring attention to the postings and ieee Spectrum’s Erico Guizzo’s well written article because by analyzing UGV shortcomings in dealing with the Fukushima disaster Guizzo uses current real world examples to illustrate the limitations of the state of the art in ground robotics.
Leaving the technical details for your reading of the article I want to further comment on two critical points that might be glossed over by technologists. First there are the costs of radiation hardening of the electronics to withstand the radiation levels that the UGVs would be exposed to when operating in or in close proximity to the reactors. Secondly there is the reluctance of the nuclear power industry to invest in research and development of robots that could have been up to the job. And of course at the root of both of these issues are the perceived economic value of the necessary investment and the tradeoffs that took place early on as the prime determinants of what technologies eventually get developed, marketed and adopted.
Starting with the electronics. I had the good fortune to work in the microwave components industry in the pre-COTs era making parts for space craft, fighter jets and air defense radars. Radiation hardening http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiation_hardening was a specified requirement for all space qualified hardware and much of electronics that went in to weapons systems. And of course that process drove the costs of these systems far above those of their commercial counterparts without rad hardening.
Rad hardening was but one component reliability specification adhered to in the pre COTs era. There were many including MTBFs for each lowly component as well as for the entire system.
Bear in mind that today’s UGVs are all built with COTs components and that, as I noted in the sensors and payloads market research report, UGV reliability has not kept pace with their rate of fielding and rapid growth of operational hours. To ensure reliable operation of UGVs at the vehicle level, the many components or parts that comprise the UGV must be reliable. The components of a UGV that are important for reliable operations include sensors (such as cameras, laser or sonar range finders, thermal sensors, etc.), effectors (such as motors, grippers, etc.), power sources (such as batteries or engines) and platforms (including the robot base, wheels or tracks, manipulator arms, etc.). System-level issues important for reliable operations include control (from low-level motor control to higher-level autonomous behaviors), human-machine interface (including joysticks and displays), and communication (e.g., wireless). Despite having gained some success, UGVs are currently far from being reliable. Reliability studies of UGVs show that the Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) for a UGV is currently only between 6 to 24 hour