If you thought military robots were only fighting wars overseas, think again. iRobot's war-bots are now working at a nuclear plant right here on home soil.
The company's Warrior and PackBot military robots are carrying out inspections and other duties at a nuclear power plant in South Carolina, iRobot announced today.
Last fall, operator Progress Energy purchased one Warrior 710 and two PackBot 510 units for its Robinson Nuclear Plant near Hartsville. It marks the first time iRobot's machines are being used at a domestic nuclear plant.
Priced around $350,000 to $400,000, the Warrior is a rugged machine that can haul payloads of more than 150 pounds and lift up to 220 pounds. The PackBot, at $100,000 to 150,000, is used for tactical operations such as inspecting objects.
Variants of the remote-controlled droids have been used in the aftermath of the nuclear crisis in Japan. iRobot sent two Warriors and two PackBots to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) to help with surveys and debris removal at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was crippled by core meltdowns.
"In an industrial environment, they have two great values -- personal safety and increased efficiency," said Tim Trainer of iRobot's military business unit. Tepco has requested two more PackBots and they will have improved treads for tackling wet metal stairs, Trainer added.
Japan today lifted some exclusion orders for towns near the Fukushima plant, but residents cannot stay overnight. Meanwhile, Tepco has found that the coolant water level in the No. 2 reactor is only 23 inches deep, suggesting it is leaking from the containment vessel into the plant.
Trainer says iRobot has learned from its experience at Fukushima and he believes robots will play a greater role in standard maintenance operations at nuclear facilities.
"The challenge is what kind of emergency response capability will you plan for?" he said. "I don't know that anyone would have foreseen a complete meltdown of reactors in Japan, but had we had a robust robotic infrastructure for routine operations, I think you can build off of that to a higher-level requirement."
So far, the robots at the Robinson plant in South Carolina have been inspecting high-dose areas and doing surveys of radiological shipments, keeping human workers at a safe distance.
"Robots are something that's really being pushed now to protect workers in the nuclear industry," said Jessica Lambert, a spokesperson for Progress Energy.
In the future, she added, the Warrior and PackBots at Robinson could be used in handling nuclear waste.