Toshiba has revealed a new robot intended to explore the radioactive mess of Japan's Fukushima No.1 reactor in Tokyo, a four-legged beast that can birth a second, separate robot to squeeze through narrow spaces. The tetrapod 'bot - which resembles a Toshiba-branded coolbox on spindly legs, and carries both a camera and a dosimeter - is remotely controlled by a wireless operator, and has clever onboard intelligence that allows it to totter across uneven terrain without tumbling.
In fact, the artificial smarts are so good, the robot can automatically avoid obstacles as it wanders through the Tokyo Electric power plant, in addition to climbing stairs. A maximum speed of 1km/h (0.6mph) means it's hardly going to worry the 18mph DARPA cheetah robot which broke records back in March, but should be enough a fair amount of exploration given its 2hr battery life.
Toshiba developed the robot because there are still plenty of areas at the Fukushima plant where wheeled or tracked alternatives simply can't get through. However, it's not small - standing more than a meter high, and over half a meter wide - and so there's a second camera robot that can be deployed via a robotic arm, for narrower gaps.
That companion 'bot - a little taller than a 1U rack unit - is tethered back to the main tetrapod via a cable, but carries its own battery good for an hour of use. It's even slower than its parent, with a top speed of 0.12mph, but means the safety team can navigate through pipes and around toppled equipment.
Toshiba says the next stage is to give the robot the ability to install shielding, end leaks, and remove obstacles, helping make the power plant safer for human involvement. There's no word on when it might first go exploring.