Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on May 2, 2016.

Machine Age

Why research needs to keep pace with rapid advances in robotics


IN FEBRUARY I attended the International Workshop on the Use of Robotic Technologies at Nuclear Facilities, held at the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) in Maryland. I was there to present on smart firefighting, part of the workshop’s aim to facilitate technical exchange of lessons learned from historic nuclear power incidents, such as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, as well as ongoing research and other relevant applications.

The event was a reminder that the real-world uses of robotic technologies are impressive and advancing faster than we can imagine. In one simulation, I watched a remote video screen as a sleek quad-copter hovered in the middle of a large power plant turbine hall. As the copter began a slow rotation, a three-dimensional floor-to-ceiling model of the hall’s interior took shape on another video screen. In just a minute or two, the copter made three full rotations and generated a highly detailed 3D animation of the hall’s interior volume. On the last rotation it used a special radiation sensor to locate a suspected source of radioactive contamination in a corner of the hall. All of this was accomplished with no direct exposure to plant staff or emergency responders.

The potential for the safe determination of indoor hazards is significant, and the NIST demonstrations were yet another example of what seems like the technology of tomorrow appearing on the doorstep of today. The hazards posed to humans at a nuclear power facility can be extreme, and enabling robots to perform these tasks has great potential benefit. Perhaps the most striking applications are efforts to perfect autonomous humanoid robots to enter the Fukushima plant in Japan, which was severely damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Ongoing work has focused on using robots to perform critical functions such as navigating through debris and turning valves in highly radioactive areas.

The work NIST has already completed in its robotics lab is impressive and includes terrestrial, submersible, and aerial robotics. That work also illustrates how technology can leapfrog ahead of the safety infrastructure needed to support it, such as operations, procurement, professional qualifications, training, and regulations. A multitude of procurement-oriented standards for robotics have already been generated through ASTM International, and NFPA is considering a new end-user-oriented standard for aerial robotics. Both organizations and others are scrambling to work together to clarify the best path forward.

The knowledge gaps are many, and a great deal of research needs to happen. Research areas for aerial robotics alone include long-range exterior deployment techniques, such as those used in wildland fire events; indoor use of robotics for tasks such as interior mapping; swarming implementation with micro-units; equipment deployment techniques for assets like medical supplies; and many more. We can expect more research on these topics as the applications and uses become more obvious.

For many of us, the word “robot” conjures up images from classic science fiction. While some of this is still far off, other aspects are much closer than we may think. The potential for robotics to assist with dangerous professions like firefighting is great—the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Top Photograph: Shutterstock