Civil engineers surveying an old factory for demolition have discovered a partially-collapsed room that was perhaps once used as a storage annex for the various chemicals used in making whatever the factory made (paper, socks, whatever). Across the room they see several huge red plastic 55-gallon drums, apparently unlabeled. They start to cross the room when they notice the floor is covered with puddles of some chemical, and the air is caustic and starts to eat away their skin (a slight exaggeration, perhaps).
They quickly retreat and consider their options. If the red barrels contain something relatively non-toxic, they can just approve the building for demolition and collapse the building with them still inside. However, if they contain some controlled hazardous waste, they must be removed from the building before demolition can continue. So they must retrieve a sample of what is in the barrels.
However, what is inside the barrels could be very toxic and release fumes, so they should probably not puncture or open a barrel to take a sample; they should remove an entire barrel and take it to a lab for safe opening and analysis.
Normally, they could bring in a forklift or similar machine, drive over, and pick up the barrel, but whatever chemicals are on the floor and in the air are so nasty that they do not want to enter the room, even in protective gear. As they discuss this, in fact, they retreat to a couple of rooms away, as even standing nearby is irritating.
One of them pipes up and mentions that she went to MIT with someone who works for RoboJunk, a salvage robotics company. RoboJunk builds robots to go into dangerous areas and retrieve salvage of various kinds. Perhaps one of their robots could be programmed to cross the factory floor, pick up one of the barrels of chemicals, bring it back to the edge of the factory floor, and load it onto a waiting forklift. Then the civil engineers could transport it to a truck and then to the lab for analysis.
They all agree that this is a great idea, and crowd into a phone booth excitedly to call RoboJunk.
The phone rings on your desk. You're across the hallway in your lab, working on one of the new RoboJunk industrial claws with some of your friends, but you rush back into your office and pick it up. It's your boss. He relates the story of the civil engineers and their mystery barrels. He suggests that maybe with some modification, the industrial claw you and your friends have developed could be the main unit of a robot that could perform the task they asked for.
He also says that he has been the factory and checked it out and the situation isn't as impossible as it might sound. First of all, the barrels stand on a raised platform near a wall that runs all the way to the edge of the factory floor, so a robot might be able to follow that. Secondly, there are still lines painted on the floor to guide humans operators from area to area in the factory; a robot might be able to make use of them. Thirdly oh yes, thirdly, RoboJunk is disassembling some old projects, so you have a nearly unlimited quantity of structural materials and robot parts to work from.
What do you think?
Below is a model of the factory floor layout. The barrels are in red (note that they sit on a raised platform), and the bin to drop them in after they have been retrieved is clear plastic. Note also the wall and the layout of the line on the floor - both of them may be useful.