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Designing robots to help in a disaster

DARPA's Robotics Challenge inspires new catastrophe-relief technology

11:44am, December 3, 2014
rescue robot

ROBOTS TO THE RESCUE  Robots would be the ideal alternative to sending human crews into disaster zones. But Atlas (shown) and others still have trouble with simple tasks, such as walking, communicating and staying powered up.

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Dennis Hong first spied Japan’s ruined nuclear power plant from a bus wrapped in plastic.

A hefty layer of protection guarded the seats, floors and handles from radioactive dust. Hong wore a face mask and gloves to limit his own exposure. Like the other passengers, he had dressed in old clothes that he was willing to toss after the trip.

More than three years earlier, after an earthquake and tsunamis battered Japan’s eastern coast, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station blew, blasting radiation into the sea and sky. Today, villages outside the plant still lie as barren as ghost towns. Soccer balls and notebooks rest untouched in abandoned schools; hushed houses sit deserted. Along the coast, smashed buildings, flipped cars and train tracks twisted like taffy stand as reminders of the catastrophe.

“It’s like a disaster site frozen in time,” Hong says. “It’s surreal.”

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