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Game pads prove handy for decommissioning nuclear plants

  • JAPAN NEWS / YOMIURI

    A robotic arm designed for decommissioning work at nuclear power plants is seen at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s Kobe Shipyard & Machinery Works. The arm is operated by a game pad.

Video game pads and similar products are being used to mani- pulate robots engaged in decommissioning work at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings’ disaster-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Young workers who have used game pads to play video games at home can operate them easily and take full command of detailed operations.

The game pads are perfectly suited to remotely maneuvering robots working in areas humans cannot reach.

A 23-foot-long, 3.5-ton giant arm slowly moves at a factory of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Kobe. The company and other entities developed the arm for removing nuclear fuel from Fukushima No. 1 plant following the meltdown there.

A company employee took a palm-sized pad, just like the ones that accompany video game consoles, and held it in both hands — deftly manipulating the sticks and buttons while looking at a video sent from a camera installed at the tip of the robotic arm.

Non-portable controllers and computer keyboards used to be the most common tools for operating robots at nuclear plants. Since the Fukushima crisis, however, game pads have gradually replaced them.

“They’re relatively cheap and available for several thousand yen, plus they easily cope with small movements,” said Hiroaki Anekawa, 60, senior project manager at Mitsubishi’s Advanced Nuclear Plant &Fuel Cycle Engineering Department. “Young workers in their 20s and 30s are good at handling them.”

Atox Co., a nuclear power plant maintenance company, is developing a robotic arm for removing obstacles from reactor buildings. The company has started using a game pad to maneuver the arm.

“We can develop (the game pad) at a low cost, rather than creating one from scratch,” an employee in charge said.

A robot that inspected the containment vessels at the Fukushima plant’s Nos. 2 and 3 reactors was operated by a game pad.

According to Toshiba Energy Systems &Solutions Corp., “it helped stabilize the robot’s posture in underwater operations by allowing the user to subtly moderate the pressure being applied by their finger.”

Shigeo Hirose, a professor emeritus at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a robotics specialist, said, “The thing about game pads is that they ergonomically fit people’s hands, meaning they’re good for maneuvering things like robots.”

Game pads are also effective in disaster-relief missions and military operations.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency and electronics maker Mitsubishi Electric TOKKI Systems Corp. jointly developed a research robot to be dispatched to disaster sites. A store-bought game pad maneuvers a camera and poisonous gas detector.

The U.S. Navy’s USS Colorado fast-attack submarine, which went into service in March, features a camera that works as a periscope. It is maneuvered via a game pad from Microsoft’s Xbox game console.

The game pad is popular with young sailors who used to play Xbox video games.

The U.S. Navy’s official blog notes, “Colorado is the first submarine operating from the start with the gaming controllers.”

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