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UI hosts, participates in Chernobyl robot workshop March 23-27

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa College of Engineering's Graphical Representation of Knowledge (GROK) Lab is hosting a March 23-27 workshop for seven members of a national team of robotics experts developing a virtual reality mapping system to be used aboard a robot this summer to assess structural damage at the ruined Chernobyl nuclear reactor building in Ukraine.

The UI's GROK lab was selected for the project, in part, because it is one of the only labs in the nation that designs robot interface software.

Although the Chernobyl reactor explosion occurred 12 years ago, some areas of the building -- and a deteriorating concrete and steel structure built over the site to contain the mess -- remain so radioactive that a human can safely be present for only a few seconds. The $2.7 million robotics project, called Pioneer, is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA.

The 1,000-pound robot runs on tank tracks and will include a multi-camera system, a drill to collect cement samples from interior walls, and a mapping system to construct a virtual reality model of the building's interior. Engineers will use the virtual reality model to design building stabilization strategies to protect the damaged reactor core from the environment.

Geb Thomas, UI assistant professor of industrial engineering and GROK lab director, says that UI work, being done in conjunction with the Intelligent Mechanisms Group at NASA Ames, involves developing control software to allow the operator to control and graphically plan the mission, control the camera head, and interactively explore the virtual reality models built by the system.

Thomas and Fitzgerald Steele Jr., an industrial engineering graduate student from Richfield, Minn., plan this summer to accompany the system to Ukraine for preliminary on-site testing in non-toxic reactor areas. Other UI students involved in the project include Steven Dow of Urbandale; Hua Jiao of Iowa City; Greg Gerling of Winfield; Tammy Petro of Adel; Emily Wiese of Clarinda; and Andrea Scalzo, William "Dusty" Robinson and April Rathe, all of Ottumwa.

Supporters of the UI workshop include Silicon Graphics International Inc. (SGI) of Mountain View, Calif., which is providing three SGI high performance graphics work stations valued at about $180,000; Sense8 Corp. of Mill Valley, Calif., which is providing software licenses for their virtual reality applications software product; and GIANT Inc. of Iowa City, providing computer networking support.

Thomas says that he is proud to be associated with the Pioneer project team, adding that it has been called the "Robotics Dream Team" by William "Red" Whittaker, eminent robotics engineer and director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

The Pioneer project is being coordinated by the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Livermore, Calif. The Pioneer team includes members of the GROK Lab, Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineer Consortium, Pittsburgh; NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; RedZone Robotics, Pittsburgh, which is designing and building the robot with DOE funding; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories Automation and Robotics Group; Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, Richland, Wash.; and the Westinghouse Science and Technology Center, Pittsburgh.

The mapping system team is being led by James "Oz" Osborn of Carnegie Mellon University. The core sampling system is being designed and built by Carnegie Mellon and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Thomas notes that in addition to the Pioneer project, UI students worked with Carnegie Mellon on another robotics project. Last June and July, a Carnegie Mellon-designed robot, called Nomad, conducted a 45-day, 120-mile trek across the Atacama Desert in Chile to test its durability and versatility for future trips to the moon and Mars.

The project was the first in a series of tests to prepare the robot for a trip to the Antarctic to hunt for meteorites. Thomas, along with UI GROK lab engineering students, developed the computer interface that allowed visitors to a Pittsburgh lab control the robot by remote control.

For more information about the GROK Lab or the Pioneer project, visit the GROK Lab web site at