PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – When disaster struck, no human could see or venture inside the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant where a meltdown in the reactor core caused radioactive coolant water to pool eight-feet high in the basement.
“Of course that really wasn’t clearly understood. Couldn’t be understood until a machine could get in there,” said Carnegie Mellon University Roboticist Red Whittaker.
It was up to Whittaker to develop this first of kind robot to enter the radioactive plant and give officials the first eye view of the damage inside — namely this basement filled with radioactive sludge and water — and to begin a four-year process of cleaning it up.
“To pump it down, to remove the sludge, to clean the contamination,” he said.
Not only would it be the first robot-assisted clean-up of a nuclear disaster, but it also showed on a world stage the practical application of robots in crisis.
“This was transformative in that it showed the world that robots could go where humans could not, do serious work and preclude humans from danger.”
Ironically, the disaster helped which endangered the lives of thousands gave birth to an industry. Whittaker, who at the time was developing the prototypes of today’s self-driving vehicles, soon became known as the father of field robotics, for taking robots out into the real world — performing real-world tasks.
“As an impact on Pittsburgh, it is immense.”
Today, CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center in Lawrenceville has spawned dozens of pioneering robotics ventures to assist humans in everyday tasks and getting them where they need to go, most notably the autonomous vehicles being developed by companies like Uber and Argo AI.
And so the disaster that was Three Mile Island spawned the practical application of robotics, an industry that is transforming Pittsburgh which in turn is transforming the world.