Japan Earthquake: More Robots to the Rescue

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of our ongoing news coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake
Japanese roboticists plan to use the KOHGA3 ground robot (shown here during a test) to inspect a collapsed building in Hachinohe, in the northeastern portion of Honshu island.

Japan is mobilizing more robots to assist with rescue and recovery operations after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the country last Friday.

As we reported earlier, two teams are on standby, ready to deploy ground and snake-like robots. One team is based in Tokyo and the other in Sendai, but they are prepared to travel anywhere in Japan where they are needed.

Now I've learned that two other teams are also ready to field their robots. A group led by Prof. Eiji Koyanagi from Chiba Institute of Technology received a request from a company in Kajima, in the Chiba Prefecture, eastern of Tokyo, for a robot that can inspect underwater infrastructure (the roboticists are not allowed to disclose the name of the company and the nature of the infrastructure). Prof. Koyanagi visited the site to assess what robot could be used.

Another team, led by Prof. Fumitoshi Matsuno from Kyoto University, who's vice president of the International Rescue System Institute, is traveling to Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, to help inspect a building whose ceiling collapsed. His group will work with colleagues from the Hachinohe Institute of Technology to send in a ground robot called KOHGA3 [photo above].

Below is a video of KOHGA3 during a recent exercise at Disaster City, a simulated collapsed town in College Station, Texas, and the world's largest training facility for urban search and rescue.

The activities in Kajima and Hachinohe don't involve searching for survivors. They are recovery missions with the goal of ascertain damage and plan the next steps in terms of repairs and reconstruction.

In fact, recovery, rather than search and rescue, should be the focus of most robot operations from now on. The Japanese teams, however, remain prepared to assist emergency responders should their robots become necessary.

Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro from Tohoku University and president of the International Rescue System Institute tells me he contacted the fire departments of Sendai and Kobe, as well as the Ministry of Trade and Industry's Tohoku Branch and various businesses, to inform that his team's robots are available for any kind of mission. He says robots would be particularly useful to look for damages at warehouses and factories.

"I offered robotic inspection of damaged factories, particularly of dangerous locations like a chemical plant," he says.

Tadokoro, Koyanagi, Matsuno, and their colleagues Tetsuya Kimura, from Nagaoka University of Technology, and Katsuji Ohgane, from Niigata Institute of Technology -- among the leading Japanese experts in rescue robotics -- were actually in the United States when the earthquake struck. They were testing their robots at Disaster City and participating in a workshop organized by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, headed by Prof. Robin Murphy, another authority in rescue robotics. The researchers are also members of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society

quince search and rescue robotThe teams flew home as soon as they heard about the quake, arriving in Japan the next day. Prof. Tadokoro left Narita airport driving to his home in Sendai carrying on the trunk of his vehicle a tank-like ground robot called Quince and the Active Scope Camera, a remote-controlled snake-like robot.

Quince [photo, right], developed as part of Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) project, is a creation of researchers led by Prof. Tadokoro and Prof. Koyanagi, with support from the International Rescue System Institute.

The Active Scope Camera is one of several Japanese robots that have actually been used in real disasters. Below is a photo showing the device at the site of the Berkman Plaza 2 parking garage collapse in Jacksonville, Fl., in 2008.

active scope camera berkman plaza 2 garage collapse jacksonville florida

Here's a video of the Active Scope Camera during a demonstration:

As he drove to Sendai, through roads away from the ocean, Prof. Tadokoro didn't see many collapsed buildings; most destruction in this area was caused by the tsunami. That means his robots probably won't be needed here, as they're best suited for inspecting rubble and damaged structures. 

But Prof. Tadokoro and his colleagues don't have time to rest. With recovery operations just beginning and the possibility of more aftershocks as well as the threat of a nuclear crisis, the roboticists and their robots remain on standby.

More photos of KOHGA3:

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

KOHGA3 search and rescue robot japan earthquake

Photos and video: Kyoto University; Tohoku University; International Rescue System Institute  

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