Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the Japanese robotics industry was criticized for developing expensive walking humanoids rather than more practical robots. It seems the country won't have to rely on foreign robots to do the dirty work much longer, as Hitachi has announced a compact, dual-armed heavy duty robot that will begin removing rubble at the plant next year.

The ASTACO-SoRa robot and its control station were developed by the subsidiaries Hitachi Engineering & Services and Hitachi Construction Machinery. The plan called for a robot powerful enough to lift 150 kg (330 pounds) in each arm, but thin enough to move through tight passages. Measuring 98 cm (3 feet, 2 inches) across with its arms tucked in, the robot is small enough to enter most areas.

It weighs 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes), moves at up to 2.6 km/h (1.6 mph), and can operate for up to 15 hours thanks to its diesel engine. Unlike Toshiba's quadruped or Mitsubishi's MHI-MEISTeR, the ASTACO-SoRa can't climb stairs – it is only capable of overcoming small bumps up to 8 cm (3 inches) high.

The robot's arms have a reach of about 2.5 meters (8 feet), and can be equipped with various tools for cutting and lifting. These tools can be easily exchanged at the work area, with the exception of a longer camera arm which is raised 6.5 meters (21 feet) for performing environmental surveys.

Hitachi's ASTACO-SoRa robot is wirelessly operated at this control station

The robot is wirelessly operated from a dedicated control panel, which provides the operator with multiple views of the robot's surroundings via six on-board cameras. A laser sensor detects the width of passages in front of it, as well as any objects in its way, informing the operator if it is safe to proceed. Other sensors constantly track radiation, and this data is stored at the operator's station.

You can see how the robot works in the following videos, provided by columnist Kazumichi Moriyama via YouTube.

Source: Hitachi press release (PDF) via Jiji (Japanese)

On-site tool exchange

Lifting debris

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