Japanese Robot Surveys Damaged Gymnasium Too Dangerous for Rescue Workers

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

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

Japanese researchers have sent a robot into a damaged gymnasium where a partially collapsed ceiling makes it dangerous for rescue workers.

The team used a remote-controlled ground robot to enter the building in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, in the northeastern portion of Japan's Honshu island, and assess damages.

The roboticists, led by Fumitoshi Matsuno, a professor at Kyoto University and vice president of the International Rescue System Institute, used their KOHGA3 robot, a tank-like machine equipped with cameras and sensors, to carry out the mission.

"Part of the ceiling fell down," Prof. Matsuno told me. "That's why we used the robot." Emergency workers feared that aftershocks could send the rest of the ceiling crashing down.

Several robotics teams have been on standby throughout Japan, ready to assist in rescue and recovery operations after the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country early this month. Robots could also help at the troubled Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant.

At the Hachinohe gymnasium, Prof. Matsuno's group set up the operator station -- a laptop computer with a video game-style controller attached -- at a safe location near the entrance. From there, they deployed their robot. Watch:

The KOHGA3 has powerful motors and four sets of tracks that allow it to traverse rubble, climb steps, and go over inclines up to 45 degrees. The robot is 86 centimeters long, 53 cm tall, and weighs in at 40 kilograms. Its maximum speed is 1.8 meters per second.

The robot carries three CCD cameras, a thermal camera, laser scanner, LED light, attitude sensor, and a gas sensor. Its 4-degrees-of-freedom robotic arm is nearly 1 meter long and equipped with CCD camera, carbon-dioxide sensor, thermal sensor, and LED light.

Upon reaching the area above which the ceiling had collapsed, the robot directed one of its CCD cameras upward, using its zoom capabilities to get a good look of the damage. The robot also pointed its camera to the debris on the ground, so workers could determine whether structural parts of the roof had collapsed.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robot

Then it was time to explore other parts of the gymnasium. The roboticists drove up to a room, whose door was half open. Before entering, they used the robotic arm to peek inside. "Using a camera that is mounted at the tip of the arm, we obtained information on what's inside the room," Prof. Matsuno said.

The Kyoto University team included Dr. Noritaka Sato, Dr. Kazuyuki Kon, and Hiroki Igarashi. Prof. Masatshi Daikoku and Dr. Ryusuke Fujisawa from the Hachinohe Institute of Technology collaborated with the mission. The researchers are members of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society.

The researchers also inspected the stage of the gymnasium, again using the robot's CCD cameras and the one mounted on the robotic arm. With all the inspection tasks completed, they drove the robot back to the entrance.

The group departed Hachinohe and headed out to Kuji, Iwate Prefecture, hoping to perform more inspections there. Their first stop was the National Kuji Storage Base, one of Japan's main oil stockpiles, with three storage tanks and total capacity of 10.5 million barrels. The facility, located on the seashore, was completely destroyed [photos below], and there wasn't much the robots could do to help.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

Next they followed to a shipyard nearby. There were still buildings standing that rescue workers needed to inspect. The roboticists offered their assistance, but the officials in charge told them that a private company owned the buildings and they'd have to get permission to use the robots.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

In another attempt to deploy their robot, the roboticists drove to Noda village, located about 15 kilometers south of Kuji. The earthquake and tsunami wiped out the coastal strip of Noda, leaving almost every building completely destroyed [photos below].

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

On a rooftop overlooking the devastated landscape, the roboticists discussed potential targets for their robot with the rescue workers in charge. But the same impediment came up: The buildings were private property, and the roboticists would need permission from the owners to get in, a process that could take a long time.

japan earthquake tsunami search and rescue robots

After several days on the road looking for opportunities to assist with their robot, the Kyoto University team began to make its way home. The researchers were happy to have helped, but also overwhelmed by the extent of the destruction they saw. Their contribution, Prof. Matsuno said, is only a "very small result."

Images: Fumitoshi Matsuno/Kyoto University

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