Robot to help clean up nuclear wastes


For the dangerous job of cleaning up the radioactive waste from the production of weapons, the nuclear industry has turned to T-REX, a robot being developed by Martin Marietta Corp. in Middle River.

While T-REX (Teleoperated Robotic Excavator) may look a lot like the excavators used by highway construction contractors, any similarities end there.

T-REX is strong enough to crush a bowling ball, Al Kamhi, Martin spokesman, said. But unlike its construction industry look-alike, "it has to have the delicate touch to pick up an egg without cracking the shell," he said.

T-REX is being developed by a team of engineers headed by Dr. Von Ayer Jennings, who, before joining Martin five years ago, was involved in brain research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

The $3.3 million contract for T-REX was awarded by EG&G; Inc., a Wellesley, Maine, company that operates the federal government's National Engineering Laboratories nuclear processing complex in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

At NIH, Dr. Jennings, who has a doctorate degree in neuroscience, was trying to figure out how the brain controlled arm movements of animals.

He's now trying to apply what he learned in biological testing laboratories to machine intelligence. Dr. Jennings says that T-Rex's primary job will be to clean up nuclear waste stored at the Idaho laboratories since the atomic age began.

The waste was stored in wooden boxes or metal drums, placed on asphalt slabs about the size of football fields and then covered with dirt. The storage complex is also enclosed by a giant, warehouselike building.

It is deadly for anyone to breathe the airborne particles from the waste, so the Martin robot is being designed to do the job without endangering human life. The operator of the robot can be 300 feet, or farther, from the building and do the work from a computer console.

Commands directing T-REX to dig up the buried containers, then gently lift them and lower the corroded, rusting containers into new storage areas, will be fed to the robot through a tiny fiber optic cable not much thicker than a human hair.

Dr. Jennings says that Martin's work on the robot will begin with the purchase of a normal excavator from Caterpillar Inc. or John Deere. Its diesel engine will be replaced by a giant electric motor, and all manual controls will be removed and replaced by computers.

For its "eyes," the robot will be equipped with multiple, three-dimensional video image monitors.

The original machine will have a clumsy and jerky motion that is no problem for ripping up concrete, Dr. Jennings said. But T-REX will have to move smoothly and stop precisely to avoid a possible spill of nuclear waste.

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