Rugged robots may be tomorrow's `steel collar' workers

A new breed of robots is being devised in laboratories around the world to tackle hazardous chores such as cleaning up nuclear power plants and chiseling rock deep inside coal mines. The aim: to come up with ``steel collar'' workers that can either perform chores quicker than their human counterparts -- or handle dangerous duties that people won't carry out at all.

Until recently, robots have been primarily confined to the factory floor. There they haven't been much more than mechanical arms, carrying out simple repetitive tasks in a predictable environment.

But the new generation of machines would be fitted with rudimentary sensory and intelligence capabilities, allowing them to adapt and react to their environment to some degree. This would open a host of new jobs they could do in factories. It would also make them suitable outside the manufacturing plant.

Getting robots to replace hard-hat workers won't be easy, though, nor in most cases is such change likely to come soon. For one thing, the machines will have to be mobile. This requires complex technologies -- for instance, sensors that will allow them to dodge obstacles. As yet, virtually no robot can open a door. They will also have to be rugged: Consider what dust and rocks could do to a robot in a mine alone.

Nevertheless, efforts are under way in Japan and the United States to develop machines for a host of dangerous duties. Japan is spending $100 million over eight years to develop third-generation robots, some of which would carry out tasks in hostile environments, such as rescuing disaster victims or toiling deep under water.

One Japanese company has hatched a lumberjack robot fitted with a chain saw. British researchers have devised a robot that helps repair sewer pipes beneath city streets. Some US police have used, with mixed success, remote-controlled robots to dispose of bombs.

Among other specialized areas where machines now -- or someday might -- stand in for man:

Nuclear-power plants. Japan has devised the most novel mechanical aid here: an experimental snakelike robot designed to inspect the remote areas of power plants. Dubbed the ``elephant's nose,'' the seven-foot device has eight joints and is equipped with touch sensors and a tiny television at the tip.

In the US, the most extensive use has taken place at Three Mile Island. The stricken reactor there, in fact, has become a testing ground for a whole series of industrial robots. At least six machines have been enlisted. These are mainly single-purpose robots: remote-controlled vehicles on tracks or wheels that do one chore, such as measure radiation levels, or flush residues from walls, or scrape contaminated layers off concrete.

Duke Power Company recently tested a tracked robot at a North Carolina plant. The robot can climb stairs and take pictures in three dimensions, enhancing its use for surveillance inside reactors. Boosters envision robots with enough ``smarts'' and dexterity to, say, scoot around pipes and tote tools to do several jobs. But no matter how clever, they will have to be economical to entice utilities: Today's models often go for over $100,000.

``The ultimate goal will be to have a robot with the flexibility of a well-trained worker,'' says John Taylor, vice-president for nuclear power at the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry-sponsored group that is funding and monitoring some of the robotics research.

Mining. Coal miners probably don't have to worry about stepping aside for smart robots for 5 to 10 years yet, if then. But one advance that might be applied to mining has recently come out of Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) here. In March, researchers tested an autonomous vehicle -- a robot that propels itself -- in a mine in the rumpled hills of western Pennsylvania.

Fitted with a TV camera, a computer, and sonar devices, the six-wheeled vehicle first mapped part of the mine and then used this information to thread its way through a tunnel by ``sensing'' its contours. It scanned the terrain ahead and compared this information with images in its computer. Thus it could make steering adjustments, albeit at a languid 4 miles an hour.

The ``Terregator'' is a far cry from a robot that would tote coal on its own: It doesn't yet have the smarts to maneuver a fork in the mine. But CMU scientists, backed by $100,000 from the US Bureau of Mines, are working on advanced sensors and software to improve the mobility of such vehicles and hatch other automated mining equipment. Eventually, they see robots mapping their way through rabbit-warren tunnels to haul coal or do rescue work. Robotic cutting machines and roof-bolters are also envisioned -- all of which could make mining safer and more efficient but also displace some workers.

Construction. The Japanese have developed prototype robots that help lay concrete, spray fireproofing material on steel girders, and bore tunnels. Relatively little construction robotics work has been done in the US so far. But some experts think it will soon come.

``Over the past 10 to 15 years, the incidence of accidents in construction has been higher than any other industry in the country,'' says Rolland Guy, senior construction analyst at Battelle's Columbus Laboratories, the Ohio research and development organization. ``It has very good potential for robotics applications.''

Carnegie-Mellon researchers are within five years of one such machine: a sensor- and computer-equipped backhoe that could be used by utilities to detect and dig up gas pipes, avoiding the chance of injuries in an explosion. ``It can see things where humans can't at all,'' says CMU's Irving Oppenheim of the remote-excavator robot.

Two other hostile environments in which machines might replace man for certain tasks (someday) are space and the ocean floor. Says Dr. Oppenheim: ``The amount of activity that is now being generated here [in nonmanufacturing robotics] is significant.''

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