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Robots rush in where humans fear to tread

Claire Asher

University innovators are creating machines that are at home in extreme environments

In an excruciating scene, the recent HBO series Chernobyl re-enacts Soviet engineers’ attempt to use robots to clear rubble at the site of the eponymous nuclear disaster. Originally intended for lunar exploration, the machines are designed to endure hostile conditions — but still succumb to the intense radiation near the crippled reactor. The authorities have no choice but to get humans to do the work.

Today’s nuclear facilities are far safer but not without risks, from the ageing structures at Sellafield, the UK’s nuclear waste processing site, to Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which suffered reactor meltdowns after an earthquake in 2011.

Unlike their Soviet predecessors, though, today’s engineers have access to a growing army of helpful robots that can help with everything from decommissioning to disaster recovery, keeping humans out of harm’s way.

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