After Fukushima, Vanderbilt researchers study radiation’s effects on robots


Robots simulating radiation damage (left) and normal function (right).

After the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster, investigators used robots to determine the extent of the damage and begin cleaning up.

The question is how well robots can stand up to that sort of radiation and whether the humans using them can count on the data gathered.

Three teams of Vanderbilt University researchers – electrical, mechanical and computer engineers – recently won national recognition for answers they’re beginning to find. At this year’s Government Microcircuit Applications & Critical Technology Conference, they won the Best Poster Paper Award for “A Comprehensive Program for Investigation of Radiation Effects in Robots Used in Mitigation of Nuclear Disasters.”

WATCH: Robots simulating degradation from radiation vs. normal function.

The university’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics team exposed infrared, sonar and laser range finders to gamma radiation. The infrared range finder became unreliable, the sonar range finder showed some variations and then failed, and the laser range finder didn’t change but failed suddenly at a low dose.

Arthur Witulski

Robots at Fukushima were exposed to gamma radiation, which slowly degrades electronic parts, said Arthur Witulski, a research associate professor of electrical engineering with ISDE. He presented the paper at the GOMACTech Conference.

Eric Barth, associate professor of mechanical engineering with Vanderbilt’s Laboratory for the Design and Control of Energetic Systems, and his team are working on simulations to provide impedance control for robots exposed to radiation. They’re also discovering ways to get reliable information out of the robots without recalibrating.

Gabor Karsai, VU professor of electrical engineering and senior research scientist at the university’s Institute for Software-Integrated Systems, and his team are working on failure modeling language for robots exposed to radiation. Among other things, it allows robots to sense whether they’re able to complete the assigned tasks with the level of degradation they’re experiencing.

The teams’ three-year program is funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Other researchers recognized in the award are Zachary Diggins, Nagabushan Mahadevan, E. Bryan Pitt, Daniel Herbison, Ronald Schrimpf, Robert Reed, Robert Weller and Brian Sierowski.

They will accept it at the March 2015 GOMACTech conference in St. Louis.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
Twitter @VUEngineering