Robot Rodeo: Bomb Squads Wrangle Bots in Nuclear Scenarios
A robot unwinds a fire hose to fill up a tank with water so that it can contain exposed fuel rods. The robot rodeo exercise focused on a simulation of a tornado-damaged nuclear reactor.
CREDIT: Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories
Even the Terminator might have paused at the nightmarish scenario. The robots need to move exposed fuel rods into an undamaged tank while avoiding puddles of radioactive water lying around the nuclear plant. If they can pull it off, they also must hook up a fire hose so that they can safely immerse the fuel rods underwater.
That scenario marked just one of 10 challenges at the fifth annual Western National Robot Rodeo held at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Bomb squads from as far as New Jersey came to compete, sweat a little and show off their robot-wrangling skills during three days starting from May 25.
"I guarantee that if they're out on a real bomb call and they come across a situation we tested them on, they're going to remember," said Jake Deuel, manager of robotic and security systems at Sandia National Laboratories. [Read More: Top 7 Useful Robots You Can Buy Right Now ]
Over the past five years, Sandia has teamed up with Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico to switch off on hosting the robot rodeo. They put on the event for free so that up to 10 different bomb squads civilian or military can better prepare for real-world cases where a robot can make all the difference.
"One of the big things the teams get out of it is that we have resources as a national laboratory that they just don't have access to," Deuel told InnovationNewsDaily. "Most of these guys are cops first and bomb technicians second, so they just don't get a lot of stick time driving the robot."
Race for the prize
The make-believe nuclear scenario struck especially close to reality this year. Japan saw a quake-triggered tsunami cut power to its Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan and trigger a nuclear meltdown. One tornado that recently ripped through the Alabama also knocked out power to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, but that facility escaped catastrophe.
But none of the challenges came off as cakewalks. Another scenario saw robots scurrying around to pick up spilled military munitions in a train yard setting. Their operators struggled to spot the artillery shells wedged under the train suspension or stuck under wheels, because the robot cameras lacked field of depth perception.
"We've had some comments from these guys that it's some of the best training they ever get," Deuel said.
The robot handlers needed a delicate touch in third scenario where they guided their robots up multiple flights of stairs to reach a suspicious package on top of a tower. A fourth case forced them to think about conserving battery power when turning on the lights to search in a dark underground tunnel.
Some live-fire exercises even challenged robots to disable mock bombs by disrupting their power sources.
The next generation
Most of the six teams this year were local: the Albuquerque Police Department; New Mexico State Police bomb squad; Dona Ana County; Los Alamos Police Department and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. But the out-of-state team from the New Jersey State Police ended up winning bragging rights when the scores came in.
Deuel hopes to see bomb squads get their hands on even better robots in coming years. Many existing robots still rely upon humans to direct their every move, but a robot that could think more for itself to, say, pick up an object or get from point A to point B would free up the human operator to look at the bigger picture.
"It may not be full 'Jetsons' when the robot picks something up , but we're looking at ways to automate some of these systems," Deuel explained.
The semi-independent robot systems that do exist often come at a high cost that makes people reluctant to put them on robots which regularly face the danger of blowing up.
"The price has to come down so that a local sheriff's department or police department can afford it," Deuel said.
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