The Tokyo Electric Power Company's decommissioned Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, is still under investigation. Progress has been slow due to lethal radiation preventing workers from accessing the site, and a lack of industrial robots ready to tackle the job. Now Honda and Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) have unveiled a High-Access Survey robot that began work inside the reactor building last week.

The survey robot consists of a mobile platform developed by AIST that carries a robot arm developed by Honda which can be extended up to 7 meters (23 ft). It is remotely controlled via a 400 meter (1300 ft) fiber-optic LAN cable and wireless LAN workstation from inside a separate building. The 1,100 kg (2425 lb) robot travels at up to 2 km/h (1.24 mph) and can overcome 6 cm (2.3 in) bumps. The two groups also co-developed the remote control interface used by the operators.

Using a combination of cameras, laser range finders, and dosimeters on the tip of the extendable arm, operators can see detailed video images, collect 3D structural data, and identify sources of radiation from areas that would be otherwise inaccessible. The arm has 11 joints, allowing it to curl up while the robot is moving to stay out of the way, and snake between pipes during inspection.

In the wake of the disaster the Japanese robotics community was criticized for focusing on expensive but impractical bipedal humanoid robots, with those from Honda and AIST being the most prominent examples. Honda has spent more than two decades developing and improving its ASIMO robot. However, in 2011 Honda unveiled a prototype robot arm designed specifically for inspection work and says that both it and the new robot arm utilize technologies, such as sensor and control systems, that were originally developed for ASIMO.

AIST is also guilty of spending more than a decade focusing on its Humanoid Robotics Project, which itself began in collaboration with Honda. However, AIST has also been participating in the recovery efforts since the disaster, from surveying underground seawater seepage to helping with radiation decontamination.

This announcement follows those by Cyberdyne, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi concerning robots developed specifically for the TEPCO plant.

Honda maintains that it will continue to pursue the development of humanoid robots that are helpful to people, and will "accelerate the development of humanoid robots also designed for use in response to disasters, including the prevention and mitigation of damage caused by a disaster."

You can see a demonstration of the survey robot in the following video.

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