Testing at The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) facility
Honda engineers strived for technology useful in real life
Could ASIMO be used at Fukushima?
In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, many customers contacted Honda asking what ASIMO could do to help. In April, selected members of the ASIMO development team were put to work on developing a robot specifically for use at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which could access areas considered too dangerous for power station personnel.
Nearly two years later, after innumerable design changes and modifications, the High-Access Survey Robot began working at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station of Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. (TEPCO) on March 18, 2013.
How did the development team approach this unique task? What were the key aims and the challenges they faced? In this feature, we recount the entire development process from start to finish.
"The whole point of the robot is to assist humans," says robot development supervisor Satoshi Shigemi. "Technology is only useful when it assists us in performing certain tasks."
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station following the Great East Japan Earthquake attracted saturation media coverage for days on end, with ongoing updates of each new development in the unfolding drama. At the same time, Honda was deluged with inquiries from customers urging us to send ASIMO to help with the crisis.
The ASIMO development team was thrilled but at the same time wary of the challenge. "This sort of situation wasn't part of the initial objectives or design brief for ASIMO, so we realized right away that extensive modifications would be necessary. On the other hand, we knew that we had the technology to do it, and we wanted to do everything we could to help out at Fukushima. The main problem was the lack of information. We had no real idea of what was required at Fukushima and how we could adapt the technology at our disposal to serve that purpose." In a situation that was perfect for robots - which can operate in environments too dangerous for humans - the development team was keen to help but didn't know where to start.
Robot development supervisor
Fundamental Technology Research Center
Honda R&D Co., Ltd.
In charge of robot development at Honda. Oversaw all aspects of the robot development project for Fukushima nuclear power station through to final delivery. "Ultimately, robots are there to provide assistance to humans," says Shigemi, and this was amply demonstrated by the survey robot.
On April 1, 2011, Satoshi Shigemi, ASIMO development team members and Project Leader Takashi Matsumoto from the Fundamental Technology Research Center paid a visit to Honda R&D President Yoshiharu Yamamoto to discuss the idea of the company making a formal offer of technical assistance with the Fukushima nuclear crisis. They told the president that Honda could harness the technology developed for ASIMO to make a unique contribution that would assist not just people in the immediate vicinity but wider society in general.
But there was to be no turning back; once the mission was undertaken, it had to be seen through to the end. And there could be no compromising the many other research projects and development projects that were also in progress at the time. In spite of that, they wanted to realize a technology to deal with issues at the nuclear power station.
"We told him that the ASIMO project was predicated on the notion of a future where humans and robots exist side by side. But we couldn't concentrate on the future while ignoring a very real situation in the present where our technology could be of use. Indeed, without our help there might be no future, no technology." President Yamamoto immediately gave his assent to the development team.
Project Leader of Survey Robot Arm
Fundamental Technology Research Center
Honda R&D Co., Ltd.
As the project leader, Matsumoto was responsible for coordinating the team to make the survey robot. "I had to be very strict with the team: I told them, 'don't tell me we can't do it; just find me a way to do it!'"
As soon as project was formally launched, the development team wasted no time in getting started. In June 2011, Honda R&D officially joined forces with the TEPCO R&D Center and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) - already a Honda collaboration partner in robotics research, and began analyzing the required specifications of the new robot.
"Our biggest issue was in defining the functionality requirements of the robot," recalls a development team member. "The situation inside the nuclear power station was still very fluid and there were many conflicting reports coming through, so this made it hard to determine exactly what features would prove the most useful. Just finalizing the specifications took us about three months." At the initial stage, the robot was designed primarily for the task of opening and closing valves.
While finalization of the specifications was in progress, development work was also proceeding apace. Given the risks to which the power station workers were being exposed on a daily basis, there was no time to waste. The robot specifications were continually updated as new details of the situation at Fukushima came to hand. Existing technology and components were used where possible, with the emphasis on getting it finished as soon as possible. On November 8, 2011, Honda formally announced the successful completion of a prototype task-performing robot arm for operating valves. It had taken just three months, which represents an exceptional achievement within the robotics industry.
The development of a task-performing robot arm for operating valves was shelved after discussions with operators at the stricken facility revealed that there were far more pressing concerns than opening and closing valves. What was needed at Fukushima Daiichi was a high-access survey robot to monitor within the station. The power station was already using a number of survey robots provided by other manufacturers, but none of these was capable of reaching up to ceilings and other high locations with pipes and conduits.
"It goes without saying that those who really knew what was needed were the workers at the station," says a development team member. "So our first phase of development may seem like a waste of time, but as it turned out once we were eventually able to find out what the core purpose of the robot was, we were able to really focus on the task ahead."
So it was back to the drawing board, with a radical recasting of the basic specifications. Simply mounting a camera on the existing arm in place of the valve operating unit was not an option, because a much greater degree of precision was required. "It was a tremendous shock when we found out the extent of the changes we had to implement. But at the same time, I remember feeling relieved to finally have a proper idea of what it was that we were trying to achieve. And I'm sure the others on the development team felt the same."
Following the abrupt change in functionality - from opening and closing valves to high-access survey - the development team resumed their work with renewed vigor. In October 2012, testing of the near-complete robot began in a halted nuclear power station, as close to the actual final operating environment as possible. During the month-long testing program, the development team was able to gain important insights into the workings of an operational nuclear power station. A software engineer remembers the protective clothing that they all had to wear. "Compared to back in the laboratory, it is so much harder to operate the robot and make adjustments when you're encumbered with those gloves and all that protective gear. But it makes you appreciate the importance of knowing the environment where your products will be used."
The inside of the devastated Fukushima nuclear power station environment represents a hostile environment that poses a range of challenges not anticipated by the robot development team. In addition to networks of pipes and ducts running through the floors and ceilings and innumerable cables, there are metal catwalks up above ground level and dark, narrow passages that a person can access only by crawling. The earthquake has made movement within the power station even more difficult.
It is absolutely vital that the robot remains operational in this tough operating environment, meeting all the challenges that come its way, including system faults and physical obstructions. A broken-down robot is no more than a one-ton immovable obstacle creating a further obstruction to the restoration efforts. The Project Leader Matsumoto was always telling the team members that their primary objective was to make a robot that was properly useful. "It had to be designed to handle anything and everything. I told them that we must never give up, despite the enormity of the challenge. 'Never tell me why it can't be done,' I said, 'just find me a way that it can be done. For that is the true worth of the engineer.'"
So it was then that the development team headed out to Fukushima, not really knowing what to expect. They studied up, tested and retested, refined the technology. It didn't take long for the team to hit its stride and develop a wonderful spirit of camaraderie. Seeing the power station first hand provided the inspiration for a string of modifications, such as a laser range finder to indicate the distance to obstacles ahead and a 3D point cloud display system that was modified from the original robot development project.
After innumerable modifications and specifications updates, finally the high-access survey robot was ready. The end product of the development team's hard work was delivered to the TEPCO Fukushima Revitalization Headquarters on March 18, 2013, and began working inside the stricken Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.
Drawing on our experiences in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, Honda launched a new initiative in robotics development in the spring of 2012. This is the development of dedicated disaster robots known as Humanoid Disaster-relief Robot, which are designed for use in initial emergency response and inspection procedures at industrial accidents and disasters. The Great East Japan Earthquake has illustrated how disaster response robots can play an important role by operating in environments considered too dangerous for humans.
Honda Robotics has been reborn with a new mission that harbors infinite potential, spurred on by the fundamental conviction that technology is for people.
The high-access survey robot nears completion. It must be perfected before it leaves the laboratory - it cannot fail while in use. There was palpable tension in the air during the final days.
The finished robot awaits packaging for the trip to Fukushima. Testing in conjunction with TEPCO continued right up to the final day.
The development team with AIST officials on delivery day, showing a mixture of relief and anticipation: "We won't breathe easy until we hear that it's working properly at Fukushima."