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updated 4/6/2011 7:19:38 PM ET 2011-04-06T23:19:38

In response to the nuclear disaster at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima Daiichi power plant, rescue workers sent in high-tech unmanned systems to assist the radioactive setting, which was deemed unsafe for humans. With time at a premium, the defense and security company QinetiQ engineered an ingenious solution to help reduce training time for on-site workers.

Instead of using a laptop keyboard to guide the equipment, QinetiQ opted for controllers borrowed from Microsoft Xbox game systems. Ordinary Xbox controllers were adapted to plug into the company's rugged laptops. Using feeds from the robots displayed on the laptop screens, operators unfamiliar with the QinetiQ interface were able to get up to speed far more quickly using the Xbox controllers.

"They’re cheap, and millions of people know how to use them," J. D. Crouch, QinetiQ North America's technology solutions group president, said in a statement. Operational mastery was achieved in just one hour by Japan's operators.

The British company has sent six " robots " to Fukushima, along with a training team from its North American headquarters in Massachusetts. QinetiQ specializes in unmanned systems for the military and first responders. Its equipment was used at ground zero after Sept. 11 in New York City.

Disaster-relief robots — from massive to mini

QinetiQ North America sent Robotic Appliqué Kits, which turned 1.5-ton Bobcat loaders airlifted from Denver into unmanned vehicles in just 15 minutes. The kits permit remote operation of all 70 Bobcat vehicle attachments, such as shovels, buckets, grapples and tools to break through walls and doors.

The kits contained cameras, night vision equipment, thermal imagers and radiation equipment that were mounted to the loaders. The souped-up Bobcats can be operated from more than a mile away to help clear the way for their smaller robotic cousins.

The company also sent a pair of its TALON robots with integrated chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive detection. The 115-pound tracked robots provide night vision, sound and sensing capabilities and can run as fast as a human, according to the company.

The TALONS can be controlled from a length of about 10 football fields, or 1,000 meters, away. The two robots are being used to drag water hoses to the damaged reactors.

Dragon Runner robots, the smallest of the three, are being used as "eyes and ears" in spaces that are inaccessible to their larger counterparts. The Dragon Runners have thermal cameras and sound sensors and can access the system of concrete trenches and tunnels surrounding Unit 2 at Fukushima where a crack has been discovered.

TEPCO workers continue damage control measures at Fukushima. After several failed attempts to fill the crack at Unit 2, a coagulant was injected into the shaft, which halted the leak of radioactive water into the sea. Currently, TEPCO workers are preparing to inject nitrogen gas into the reactor vessel of Unit 1 to reduce the risk of a hydrogen explosion, according to a company press release.

 

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