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Release: Immediate

UI engineers help develop robot to assess Chernobyl damage

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A team of University of Iowa College of Engineering GROK Lab researchers and students is helping to develop a robot that will be used to assess structural damage to Russia's ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor in early 1998.

The Chernobyl reactor, which exploded 11 years ago and contributed to an estimated 30,000 deaths, remains so radioactive that some areas of the building can give a worker one month's allowable radiation dosage in just nine seconds. The $2 million robotics project is being undertaken by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, NASA, Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center, the National Robotics Engineering Corporation, the UI's GROK Lab and RedZone Robotics, Inc. as part of a $350 million program funded by Western nations to stabilize the structure.

Geb Thomas, UI associate professor of industrial engineering, notes that the UI role in the project is to help engineers use the robot to better visualize the building's interior.

"The initial mission will provide Ukranians with an advanced robot built by RedZone Robotics with technology provided by NASA, DOE and the GROK Lab. The University's GROK Lab will assist with the construction of a virtual reality model of various damaged regions of the nuclear reactor," Thomas says. He adds that the UI's three graduates and seven undergraduates working on the project are familiar with advanced programs, as most of them participated in this summer's Nomad project.

In June and July, a Carnegie Mellon University-designed robot, called Nomad, conducted a 45-day, 120-mile trek across the Atacama Desert to test its ruggedness and versatility for future trips to the moon and Mars. The project was the first in a series of tests that next year will send the robot to the Antarctic to hunt for meteorites. Thomas, along with eight engineering students from the UI's GROK lab, developed the computer interface that allowed visitors to control the robot by remote control from Pittsburgh.

Also, in a related activity, UI computer science graduate student Paul Henning of Lake Zurich, Ill. helped NASA prepare the computer interface for the Pathfinder spacecraft that landed on Mars July 4. In addition, NASA's Ames Research Center and Carnegie Mellon invited the UI's GROK Laboratory to help build the computer interface that will control Nomad while it searches for meteorites in the Antarctic.

The UI team consists of graduate students: Jiansheng Chen of Changting City, Fujian, China; Langfei "Lance" He of Nanchang, Jiangxi, China; and Hua Jia of Iowa City; and undergraduates Emily Wiese of Clarinda; William Robinson of Ottumwa; April Rathe of Ottumwa; Steven Dow of Urbandale; Ben Flach of Fort Madison; Fitzgerald Steele, Jr. of Richfield, Minn.; and Stephanie Schnoebelen of Iowa City.

9/25/97