Survey of Major Applications

There are many examples of teleoperation applied to hazardous environments. We provide a short survey of some major applications. In the first two, toxic environments and space operations, detailed scenarios are presented to illustrate critical tasks. These scenarios contain examples that can be considered prototypical of all hazardous environments.

Toxic Environments

To avoid human exposure to radioactivity or toxic chemicals, teleoperators have been used in handling radioactive and chemically toxic materials, maintaining nuclear power plants, and disposing of hazardous wastes. Handling radioactive materials was the first application for which teleoperators were developed in the 1940s by Raymond Goertz at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Glove boxes are used when more dexterity is required than is afforded by current teleoperators, but advances in telerobotic dexterity should eventually replace them.

Maintenance and cleanup of nuclear power plants typically requires mobile telerobots as well as large manipulators. A variety of wheeled or tracked mobile robots have been designed that carry sensors and manipulators through power plants (Fogle, 1992; Trivedi and Chen, 1993). Large manipulators are required to reach inside reactor vessels for maintenance (Munakata et al., 1993; Rolfe, 1992). More generally, telerobots are required to identify and handle toxic materials at accident sites (Stone and Edmonds, 1992).

The disposal of hazardous wastes is a major public concern. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has an extensive program to retrieve low- and medium-level nuclear and chemically toxic wastes of nuclear weapon fabrication from desert disposal sites and to place these wastes into improved containers and sites (Harrigan, 1993). At these desert disposal sites, most of the waste is stored in large concrete tanks or buried in 100 gallon drums whose location is known only approximately. Removing these wastes (and any soil that may have been previously contaminated through leaks) without causing further environmental damage and without endangering human life is a challenging task.

Another challenging task is disposing of the high-level nuclear waste from commercial nuclear reactors and government facilities; high-level waste is currently stored under water in storage pools. As these facilities fill up, current plans call for placing the wastes in deep underground storage facilities. Moving the material from storage pools to a processing facility where they can be more easily handled (e.g., a glass vitrification plant) to the final storage facility will require the assistance of remote handling operations.

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