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Project Backgrounder

Contacts:

Gordon Yano, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (925) 423-3117

Doug Isbell, NASA Headquarters (202) 358-1753

Carnegie Mellon and RedZone Robotics Join DoE, NASA, Westinghouse and U of Iowa to Develop A Robot That will Inspect the Damaged Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station

PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Engineering Consortium and RedZone Robotics, Inc., of Pittsburgh are part of a U.S. collaboration developing a teleoperated mobile robot to inspect and assess structural damage at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine.

The project is sponsored by the Department of Energy (DoE) and NASA and includes researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Intelligent Mechanisms Group at NASA's Ames Research Center, DoE's Lawrence Livermore and Pacific Northwest national laboratories, the University of Iowa's Graphical Representation of Knowledge (GROK) Laboratory and Westinghouse Electric Corporation's Science & Technology Center.

A reactor exploded at Chernobyl in April 1986, releasing into the environment radiation that killed 32 people and poisoned countless others in the world's worst nuclear accident. The reactor core was destroyed and the reactor building suffered extensive damage. The concrete and steel sarcophagus built around the reactor building to contain radiation after the accident is deteriorating. The Ukrainian government is under pressure from the world community to close the facility because of concerns about its structural integrity.

Experts estimate that structural stabilization efforts at Chernobyl will take 3 years and cost more than $750 million. To date, some $300 million has been raised by Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S to identify and carry out a process to stabilize the facility.

The U.S. robotic remote reconnaissance system, known as Pioneer, consists of a small robot measuring 3 feet long (one meter) and 3.3 feet. high (1.2 meters) that crawls on tracks like a bulldozer. It's modeled after a machine developed by RedZone that is cleaning up nuclear waste storage tanks for DoE at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

In addition to providing the robot platform, RedZone will integrate the system with the NASA-provided technologies, test it at its Pittsburgh facility, provide training for the Ukrainian operators and support the system through its deployment at the Chernobyl site.

The system consists of four major components: The robot, which will deploy sensors and sampling equipment; a mapper for creating photorealistic 3D models of the building's interior; a core borer for cutting and retrieving samples of structural materials and a group of radiation and environmental sensors.

Pioneer will incorporate mapping technology NASA developed for the Mars Pathfinder mission and drilling technology it has developed for exploration of asteroids. The Pathfinder software is being modified by researchers at NASA Ames and the University of Iowa's GROK laboratory. Carnegie Mellon will further refine these technologies for Pioneer and contribute its own 3D vision and core sampling technologies.

Pioneer will have the capability to evaluate the Chernobyl shelter for stability, map the structure in 3-D via "Octane" high-end workstations donated by Silicon Graphics Corp., gather samples of materials and measure radiation levels within the facility. The system incorporates tried- and- true robotic technologies. It will have the capability to go into a room and assess it meter by meter.

"Pioneer is the first offering of Western robotic technology to assess the damaged site at Chernobyl," said Lawrence Livermore's Maynard Holliday, programmatic lead on the project, and a member of DoE's Nuclear Material Security Task Force. "This is the best we have to offer--radiation hardened components and a 3-D vision system that will render visually realistic images."

At Carnegie Mellon, the project's principal investigator is Fredkin Research Professor William L. "Red" Whittaker, who directs the Robotics Institute's Field and Mobile Robotics Center (FRC). The project manager is FRC assistant director and senior project scientist Jim "Oz" Osborn.

In the mid 1980s, Whittaker and Osborn were principals on a Carnegie Mellon team that designed and built several unmanned, teleoperated robotic work systems that helped to clean up a damaged nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa. In that situation, the robots had to move through radiation-contaminated water in a containment building, take pictures, measure radioactivity. and take core samples from the building's walls to see how much radiation they had absorbed.

"This project is very much in the model of work we did on Three Mile Island," Whittaker said.

Shortly after the Chernobyl accident, the Soviet government contacted Whittaker, requesting copies of the Three Mile Island robots for use at Chernobyl. RedZone was founded in 1987 by Whittaker and others to provide the robots, but the sale was blocked by US technology export limitations in force at that time.

"The Pioneer program brings us full circle-- back to the event that launched the company," said RedZone President Bill Cogger. "It's an important milestone in our efforts to provide robots for hazardous environments."

At RedZone, the Pioneer program is led by Adam Slifko who helped to develop the company's Houdini (tm) robot on which Pioneer is based. Houdini is currently retrieving nuclear waste from buried storage tanks at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.