Robots Printed in 3-D for Nuke Plant Patrol
CREDIT: Harry Asada/d'Arbeloff Laboratory
Patrolling nuclear power plants for radiation leaks is dangerous work even for robots. Luckily, should any of the tiny robots designed by MIT engineers meet an untimely end while swimming through some nuke plant cooling pipes, the engineers can simply use 3-D printing to pop out some new bots.
Such robots could prove crucial for ensuring the safe operations of U.S. nuclear power plants an Associated Press investigation found radioactive leaks from the underground pipes of three-quarters of the country's nuclear reactor sites. Safety inspectors have used electrical tests and ultrasonic waves to try and find corroded pipe areas, but can't monitor conditions directly without digging up the pipes.
"We have 104 reactors in this country," said Harry Asada, a mechanical engineer and director of MIT's d'Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology. "Fifty-two of them are 30 years or older, and we need immediate solutions to assure the safe operations of these reactors."
MIT researchers envision their small, disposable robots carrying out several underwater patrols before they broke down in the radioactive environment . The cannonball-shaped robots move about underwater by directing high-pressure water flow of the pipes with a system of valves in their smooth, spherical hulls, rather than using propellers or rudders that could get a robot stuck inside a pipe.
"You would have to shut down the plant just to get the robot out," Asada said. "So we had to make [our design] extremely fail-safe."
Asada's lab used 3-D printers to build the network of valves, layer by layer, without overly complicated manufacturing. [Read More: Will 3-D Printing Challenge Traditional Manufacturing? ]
Other robotic features include "eyeball" mechanism that allows the robot's camera to pan and tilt by shifting the center of mass, not unlike how a hamster shifts the center of mass in its hamster ball. Researchers also hope to give the robots wireless communications underwater to transmit images across distances of up to 328 feet (100 meters).
"The system has a simplicity that is very attractive for deployment in hostile environments," said Henrik Christensen, director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "One would like to have a system that can be deployed at a limited cost and risk, so an autonomous system of minimal size is very attractive."
Even Homer Simpson might approve of MIT's robots for nuclear safety inspection if he weren't dozing in the control room.