Thursday, April 7, 2011

Flying Beer Keg to the Rescue in Japan

Flying Beer Keg to the Rescue in Japan: "

The Defense Department canned the so-called “Flying Beer Keg.” But the hovering drone and some of its robot pals now have a new mission: helping Japan manage its multiple post-earthquake disasters.

CNET report that the keg, otherwise known as the T-Hawk micro air vehicle, is heading to Japan to monitor radiation levels damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Ever since Japan’s earthquake damaged three reactors at the Fukushima, radiation has been leaking out of its reactors into the surrounding environment at dangerous levels, making repair work a dicey prospect for humans.

Enter the Keg. It’s not the prettiest of drones, looking like the love child of a dorm party staple and a hibachi grill set on stilts. But the small, lightweight (17 lbs) micro air vehicle made by Honeywell can fly to heights of 7,000 feet, hovering through the use of a gasoline-powered ducted fan.

The Keg was intended for reconnaissance flights and saw action in Iraq hunting for roadside bombs. It was supposed to play a central role in the Army’s $200 billion behemoth modernization program, Future Combat Systems. The FCS project eventually collapses under its own weight and ambition. Afterwards, the Army axed the T-Hawk, which tended to be noisy in flight.

But the Keg would not die.

In it’s post-FCS career, the flying bot has seen civilian use as a surveillance bot for the Miami-Dade Police Department. Today, it’s part of a small army of drones and robots helping Japan in the wake of its multiple disasters.

Kyodo News reports that the U.S. government first suggested that Japan use the T-Hawk to monitor Fukushima’s damaged reactor No. 4. Under the plan, the drone would hover over the reactor and check if radiation levels are safe enough for Tokyo Electric Power Company workers to bring in machinery to cool spent fuel rods.

Shortly after the earthquake, the U.S. Air Force sent a Global Hawk intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drone to Japan at the government’s request. In a reprisal of the role it played after Haiti’s earthquake, the U.S. Air Force deployed Global Hawk to help Japan “assess damage to towns, industrial infrastructure and other facilities” with its ISR capabilities.

Last week, the British defense company QinetiQ sent Talon and Dragon Runner robots to Japan, as well as kits that turn Bobcat construction equipment into remote-control robots. Talon, a miniature tracked robot used for bomb disposal duty around the world, is being sent to Japan with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) detection kits. The smaller Dragon Runner, basically a 16 inch version of TALON, is on offer for poking through confined spaces in rubble and debris. QinetiQ’s robot kits for Bobcat loaders, a small version of a bulldozer, have allowed Japanese workers to remotely pilot the equipment from up to a mile away using X-box controllers.



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