After the earthquake last year and the resulting damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant, observers criticized Japan’s lack of preparedness. In particular, many felt that the Japanese robotics sector’s focus on expensive humanoids had squandered time and resources better spent on more specialized robots. However, this isn’t totally accurate. The Japanese government, corporations, and universities have been working on robots for just this sort of problem for decades. Back in the 1980s the Japanese government invested 20 billion JPY (still less than $100 million dollars at the time) into a massive eight-year program to build three types of advanced robots for hazardous environments.
The ART (Advanced Robotics Technology) Project had goals that were too big for any one institution to achieve, so a consortium called ARTRA (Advanced Robotics Technology Research Association) was formed. Financed and controlled by the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology, ARTRA brought two major government organizations, the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory (MEL; now known as AIST) and the Electrotechnical Laboratory (ETL), together with 18 corporations under the same banner, along with the support of academia.
The ART robots were designed for three major areas: nuclear plants, undersea oil rigs, and a third for disaster prevention in refineries.
The nuclear inspection robot would have a sensor head, four legs, two 7-DOF arms, and four-fingered hands with pressure sensitive finger tips (this configurarion led to it being known as the Centaur robot). It would be paired with a smaller, wall-climbing partner that used suction cups to adhere to wall surfaces. This would allow it to “climb up and down stairs, step over piping or other impediments, and relocate itself at high speed.”
It would have to work in 70 degrees (158 degrees Farenheit), 90% humidity, and 100 roentgens of radiation per hour. What started as a 1/3-scale model of the four-legged mechanism eventually became a robot measuring 188 cm (6’2″) tall, 127 cm (4’2″) long, and weighing 700 kg (1,543 lbs).