Japan rejects PLA offer of robots to handle disaster at nuclear plant
An offer by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to send robots designed to handle nuclear accidents to Japan has been turned down because Tokyo does not want help from the Chinese military.
Professor Song Aiguo, director of the robotic sensor and control laboratory at Nanjing's Southeast University, said a team of robots from the Nanjing Military Region's nuclear emergency response task force had been ready for deployment since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant causing an environmental and humanitarian disaster.
But the Japanese government had rejected the offer, he said. Song is the leader of the nuclear response robot project commissioned by the PLA.
Both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defence Ministry have declined to comment on the offer. Earlier reports said the Japanese have rejected other offers by the Chinese army, including aids from PLA medical ship Peace Ark.
Robot experts around the world have been deeply puzzled by the absence of Japanese robots at Fukushima. From Las Vegas to Tokyo, robots developed by Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi and Sony have been the stars at the world's biggest electronic shows, with their artificial intelligence and delicate design leaving competitors from other countries such as the United States and China far behind.
But Song said that was also the biggest weakness of Japanese robots: they were not good at dirty work such as handling meltdowns at nuclear plants. At Fukushima, radiation escaping from damaged fuel cores could damage a robot's computer gear and storage device and wreck the central processing unit, he said.
'None of the fancy, human-like Japanese robots you see in electronic shows would survive for a minute at Fukushima, not to mention performing highly demanding tasks such as surveillance and repairs,' he said.
As the accident at Fukushima escalated, the Japanese government turned to Germany and the US for robots that could work in highly radioactive environments.
The German robots are designed for damage control work at its nuclear power plants. The American robots are the PackBots used by US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Song said China had been closely monitoring the performance of German and American robots at Fukushima.
'We are disappointed,' he said. 'From what we have learned, robots from Germany are too big and clumsy to reach the core area through the labyrinth of debris created by the tsunami and explosions. Robots from the United States are more compact and agile, but they are designed to deal with roadside bombs, not a nuclear disaster.'
Song said the mainland's nuclear robot programme started in 2004 after the military had to handle a 'nasty' incident involving stolen radioactive material for civilian use. The military was concerned about the safety of their soldiers and asked scientists to develop robots that could perform some of the most dangerous jobs such as locating and repairing radiation leaks.
The PLA had been keen to deploy its latest robots in Fukushima and see how the technology it had been developing for more than a decade fared in such an extreme environment, he said.
Song said the Chinese robots, which looked like WALL-E from the animated movie and cost 500,000 yuan (HK$593,000) each, had several advantages over their German and US competitors. They were small, light and designed to move over rough terrain. They were remotely controlled and transmitted video signals up to 15 kilometres - more than 15 times the operational range of the PackBot, which cost more than four times as much.
'One thing where we beat them all is that our control system can be operated with ease by people wearing heavy protective suits and thick gloves,' Song said. 'Being user-friendly is very important for a robotic system during a nuclear emergency.'
The only condition for the deployment of the robots was that they must be controlled and maintained by Chinese military personnel because China wanted to protect its military technology secrets.
Shaun Whitehead, a British ambassador of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers with experience building robots for use both on earth and in space, said there were specific challenges for robots operating in situations such as the Fukushima crisis.
'From a mechanical point of view, they do not need to be particularly complex but must be able to handle large and awkwardly shaped objects,' Whitehead said.
He said that the US-built PackBots, which were designed for bomb-disposal work, were clearly not suited to this kind of work, but declined to comment on Japanese robots due to insufficient information.
'The radiation degrades particular materials, so that is important,' he said. 'From an electronic point of view, they again need to be as simple as possible.'
Additional reporting by Will Clem