As brave emergency workers battle around the clock at Fukushima to cool the reactors, Strategic Defence Intelligence asks how military robots could contribute to efforts to prevent nuclear meltdown.

It has been said that the purpose of robots is to carry out tasks that meet any of the three D’s; those that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for a human to do. No one can deny that conditions at Fukushima are among the most dangerous a human can face, and rescue specialists are looking into the possibility of using military robots and other unmanned systems to minimise the risk to lives.

The ‘Fukushima 50’, a group of lower and middle level managers working at the site, since joined by 150 colleagues, are working to limit the danger to Japan at large following a series of explosions that resulted from the earthwork that hit northern Japan on 11 March 2011. Five are believed to have died already, many more have been injured and two have been hospitalised following radiation exposure.

High levels of radiation

Even operations from outside the plant are subject to high levels of radiation. Helicopters dumping water on the stricken reactor have reported high exposure, as have US helicopters running missions as far as 60 miles away.

Robots are commonly used in nuclear reactors. Robots originally developed for use in oil exploration are being used to decommission the Windscale reactor in the UK. For an emergency situation such as Fukushima, military robots could be more suitable.

Bomb disposal robots can be operated from a safe distance and can travel across rough terrain. They are fitted with versatile dextrous manipulators that trainer operators could use to, for example, repair and restart the cooling pumps. Manufacturer iRobot has reportedly been approached about sending some of its robots to help in cleanup efforts at the nuclear plant.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) fitted with cameras have been mooted as a solution for investigating the exact situation inside the reactor. Operated remotely, small models could fly in and access areas too cramped or dangerous for humans to enter.

Lockheed Martin has confirmed that the K-MAX unmanned helicopter it has developed with Kaman might be deployed in Japan. It has a 6,000lbs lift capacity, which could make it ideal for dropping water to cool exposed fuel rods. The rotorcraft is currently undergoing trails and is due for in-theater assessment in Afghanistan later in the year.

Purpose built robots

Though no military robots have been used to date, purpose built Japanese robots such as the Monirobo (monitoring robot) radiation detecting robot and a fire fighting robot have reportedly been used.

The one fundamental reason military robots have not yet been deployed may be that none of them have been specifically designed or tested for the task at hand. The situation is too fragile now to take on a new risk.

It may be too late for military robots to join the cause saving lives in Fukushima, but hopefully lessons can be learned which could see these robots ready and able to join relief efforts following any similar future disaster.