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iRobot to the rescue

CSAIL spinoff sends robotic aid to Japan
iRobot's Warrior machine, one of two types of robots sent to Japan, in action.
iRobot's Warrior machine, one of two types of robots sent to Japan, in action.
Image: iRobot

In Hollywood blockbusters, robots are often portrayed as menacing machines intent on destroying mankind. But in the fight to contain the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, robots may prove to be a powerful ally in reining in a dangerous situation. Thanks to Bedford-based iRobot, the Japanese government will now have four robots, capable of doing everything from measuring radiation levels to clearing debris, to assist them with the ongoing nuclear crisis and in clean-up efforts following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11.

iRobot — a Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory spinoff company founded by MIT Professor Emeritus Rodney Brooks, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner — sent four robots to Japan to aid in the nation’s recovery efforts, both at the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and in regions struck by the earthquake and tsunami. According to Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, chief operating officer of iRobot, the company sent two PackBots and two Warrior robots to aid the Japanese without even receiving a call for assistance.

The robots are already on the ground in Japan and Dyer hopes they will soon prove useful in a wide variety of tasks. While iRobot is not exactly sure what sorts of functions the PackBots and Warriors will be performing, Dyer explained that the biggest benefit in having these types of robots is their ability to enter locations deemed unsafe for humans.

“Robots are very capable of going into places that people cannot or should not go,” Dyer said. “They can survey the environment, report back and provide visual inspection. They can hear and see and measure and record and do many of the things that a human investigator can do, only without the danger.”

The 68-pound PackBots sent to Japan are specifically designed for hazardous situations and are programmed to measure radiation levels (including gamma radiation), oxygen temperatures, humidity and explosive gases. The Warrior, the second type of robot sent to Japan, is 350 pounds and is designed with heavy-lifting capabilities and the ability to traverse and clear all sorts of terrain.

Several iRobot employees traveled to Japan as well, where they provided training in how to operate the machines, as well as technical support.

Dyer said his company jumped at the opportunity to help provide support to the Japanese people during this critical time.

“We build robots to put distance between people and danger, and this is a great example of how they can serve,” Dyer said.

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