March 18, 2011 at 4:07 PM ET
Four robots are en route to Japan with capabilities that could be used on search and rescue missions as well as try to define the environment close to the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants, iRobot announced today.
"We don't know yet where, how, and when they'll be used," Laura Jakosky, a spokeswoman for the company, told me today in an Email. Both models are ground robots and were used in the rescue and recovery mission at Ground Zero following the 9/11, she added.
The robots were put on a plane Friday for Japan and plans call for iRobot personnel to train Japanese forces on how to operate the robots from a protected vehicle.
Potential uses for the 510 PackBot include HazMat detection and video surveillance. The 710 Warrior is capable of carrying heavy payloads and traveling over rough terrain, even climbing stairs. It could, for example, haul a water hose close to the reactors, akin to a robotic firefighter, Jakosky noted.
The ultimate mission of the robots will be determined by the Japan Ground Self Defense Forces.
Among first of many?
Red Whittaker, one of the world's leading robotics experts, at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, said these robots are among the early deployments in what will be weeks, months, and years of robotic "work systems" being deployed in Japan.
"The first use of robots in an incident response is usually for viewing and evaluating and sometimes small robots are useful for that," he told me today.
As time progresses, work systems will be deployed that are designed for specific tasks such as carrying loads, pumping water and cleaning up hazardous waste.
One could imagine, for example, the need for a crane-like device that can spray water from a high elevation into the reactor pools, or a smaller robot able to drill into the concrete walls surrounding the pools so that analysis can be performed. Bulldozer like robots could help with cleanup operations.
"These are campaigns, not skirmishes, and typically new tools are brought to bear as the challenges arise and those challenges are very different over time," Whittaker said.
The early machines, such as the iRobot models on their way to Japan, will do characterization (definition) work. Others will be called in for specific tasks. "My sense is we will see a world class application and utilization of such machines where they matter and when they matter," he said.
More on search and rescue robots:
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).