Think back to the first time you saw a robotic vacuum cleaner. It was likely inside a friend’s apartment, and someone probably threw a potato chip on the floor in order to summon the robot to inhale it. It was probably presented as some kind of 21st century pet, and most folks probably loved it because of how much quieter it was than a regular vacuum.
But robotic cleaning machines have come a long way from being thought of as mere party-trick entertainment. At the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Tokyo, they’re entrusted with one of the most crucial activities in the entire facility — nuclear cleanup. That’s because the Fukushima plant has had to take steps to better safeguard its operations since Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 led to several reactor meltdowns.
The robots operate around the perimeter of the plant and clean up melted fuel rods and other debris that results from everyday operations. This is done in order to prevent the site from becoming contaminated. It starts with one machine built by the Chiba Institute of Technology, Tohoku University and International Rescue System Institute, as The Wall Street Journal reports. That robot maps out radiation density after it collects data, helping another one do the actual cleaning.
Such robotic partnership is common inside Fukushima, and some machines can only do their work after other ones have completed prep work for them. But this innovation, as helpful as it is to ensuring lasting safety, comes at a steep price. Each machine costs over a million dollars to manufacture and operate, and none of them are immune to the kinds of accidents that can disrupt the flow of the workplace.
But the good outweighs the bad, experts say. And according to engineering manager Ken Onishi (who’s had a hand in their creation), the goal is to create “a small army of purpose-built robots, each designed to undertake one very specific task.” In other words, there’s no need to fear a highly advanced robotic invasion anytime soon.
On the consumer level, however, the possibility of advanced robotic vacuums has some major manufacturers excited. Take Roomba, one of the leading brands in the field. The company’s latest models are using built-in cameras to snap photos of consumers’ homes, the end goal being building a larger sensory map that can be utilized for more efficient, complete cleaning. That’s just one of the innovations that’s already taken shape.
Whether it’s inside a nuclear power plant or just your average kitchen, robots are leading the charge in the cleaning world. The downside? For machine-eyed precision, it’s likely going to run you the high costs of an actual machine. Keep that in mind before you make your next party-trick purchases.