July 06, 2011      

Like Japan, France is heavily reliant on nuclear energy (read main story). But unlike Japan, it has a fleet of robots that stand ready to tackle accidents at the country’s 59 nuclear plants. The Group of Robotics Intervention on Accidents (INTRA) is part of a consortium consisting of Electricity of France (EDF), French Atomic Energy Company (CEA), and AREVA, a nuclear power conglomerate. INTRA’s mission is to maintain a fleet of robots ready at all times to respond to an emergency anywhere in France in less than 24 hours.

Founded in 1988, INTRA maintains a variety of machines for different tasks. Designed to operate

inside reactor buildings, EOLE (Robotized Device for Observation and Localization in the Environment) and EROS (Robotized Device for Observation and Surveillance) are equipped with manipulator arms and move around on caterpillar treads. Not only can they tackle stairs and obstacles, even opening and closing doors, they can operate switches and valves.

Based on Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Remotec Andros series (also the inspiration for Disney’s Wall-E character), EOLE has onboard computers that can withstand 10,000 Gy of radiation, a five-axis arm, and three cameras. Weighing some 830 pounds, EOLE can operate for four to seven hours on its lithium-ion batteries and is controlled by a pilot and co-pilot.

EROS, meanwhile, is based on a CEA robot developed in the 1980s. Rolling on a folding chassis and two-part treads, EROS can also withstand up to 10,000 Gy and can manipulate objects with its six-axis arm; it is also remotely operated by a pilot and navigator.

INTRA’s more robust outdoor nuclear robots are equipped with cameras and radiation sensors to evaluate and clear nuclear accidents. The External Reconnaissance, Assistance and Surveillance Robot (ERASE) is a hulking machine on caterpillar treads that weighs more than 13,600 pounds. It has seven cameras to inspect accident sites while operators direct it from over six miles away; a battery charge can run it for 10 hours. Its radiation-hardened electronics, meanwhile, can withstand doses of up to 1,000 Gy. It also has a heavy-duty, five-axis manipulator arm that can hoist up to 290 kg (640 pounds) when clearing rubble. For even heavier workloads, INTRA has several remote-operated construction machines to get debris out of the way of its smaller robots.

The Engin Benne (EBENNE) is a camera-equipped Caterpillar dump truck able to detect radiation while being controlled from several miles away.

Similarly, the EBULL and EPELL are remote-controlled Caterpillar bulldozer and excavator robots, respectively, but with controller-operating distances of some 300 yards. Both can be controlled from a mobile command post.

Another nuclear disaster mitigation device, the EPPB, has a heavily shielded cabin for the equipment operators.

INTRA also possesses an arsenal of remote-controlled relay vehicles to convey radio signals to droids in hazardous areas. All units can make use of a band of 20 frequencies set aside by the French military for emergency use.