A train carriage and piles of debris

Rescue robots - where were they in the Japanese quake relief efforts?

Japan has invested heavily in robotics, so why have robots been of little use in the relief effort after the earthquake?

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake is a rare thing. That this one occurred so close to one of the world's most technologically developed and populous cities leaves the mind reeling as to what might have happened. It also provides an opportunity to see how a nation with abundant resources copes with such devastation.

The technology has clearly helped. Anyone who has seen the video of downtown Tokyo swaying in the quake will see that, despite a potentially lethal rain of rubble, the buildings stayed determinedly upright. Lessons drawn from past disasters have doubtless saved many lives.

However, it was the tsunami that caused the greatest devastation, destroying homes, drowning residents and destabilising the reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Fixed defences were not enough to hold off the waves, so the onus switched to recovery efforts, with the priority to find survivors, ensure their security and restore food, water, shelter and power.

Recovery efforts are by nature labour-intensive, complex and dangerous work. So did decades of heavy Japanese investment in robot technology match the success of the Tokyo skyscrapers' earthquake damping?

Well, the complete list of types of robots in use in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, along with their effectiveness, is still unknown, as the worst-hit region, Tohoku-Kanto, is still reeling from the effects, with thousands of people missing, the infrastructure badly damaged and a nuclear problem to deal with. However, it's fair to say that search-and-rescue robots are relatively new technologies, and many are still at the prototype stage.

Where are the robots?

Despite reports of the use of robots in specific areas, commentators have pointed to a lack of robots in the field, particularly when dealing with the human hazards of the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. Many bemoan the fact that, with all the billions of yen invested in robotics in Japan – from robot violinists and football robots to entertainment robots – none had been deployed to help the country's efforts of recovery from a nuclear crisis.

It is not, however, merely technology commentators and journalists who have been struck by the lack of robotic support for the search and rescue agencies. Researchers in the field, who are keen to assist, have also been frustrated by the situation. It is even more surprising that few robots have been used because they already feature at fire departments across Japan and have been used in other fire-fighting operations, such as the Bridgestone tyre plan fire in 2003, as well as in training exercises at other power plants, though it seems decisions had already been taken at some of the latter not to invest in robots.

So what exactly has been achieved? Two teams, one from the Chiba Institute of Technology led by Professor Eiji Koyanagi, and another – from The International Rescue System Institute led by Professor Fumitoshi Matsuno (Kyoto University) – have taken their robots to the field. Professor Matsuno's team has taken the ground robot KOHGA3 to Hachinohe in the Aomori Prefecture and plans to use their robots to inspect collapsed buildings. Professor Koyanagi's team will work in the Chiba Prefecture to inspect underwater structures.

Robots were admittedly not dispatched in the first hours and days following the disaster, but since then they have been drafted in. International crews are also on standby to assist the relief effort, providing expertise and support to Japanese roboticists on the ground.

Professor Robin Murphy of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) notes that on 11 March, leading Japanese search and rescue crews had been attending an exercise and workshop in the USA. One of these researchers, Professor Satoshi Tadakoro of the International Rescue Systems Institute, was demonstrating his team's Active Scope Camera robot.

The team from Tohoku University is now in Sendai with a snakelike robot that can wriggle into debris to hunt for people. The Active Scope Camera robot is a 8m long fibrescope covered with a special servomotor system. The ciliary drive works by vibrating the inclined thin string or wire cilia. Movement of the robot is initiated as the ciliary bends and recovers its shape during vibration. Cilia is a novel engineering product designed to mimic natural cilia. Its vibrating structures move it forward at a top speed of 7cm per second.

Professor Satoshi Tadokoro, President of the International Rescue Systems Institute (IRS), who is the leading rescue robots researcher in Japan, says: 'Several types of firefighting robots have been developed by Tokyo, Osaka and Kanagawa fire departments in Japan. Most of them are small-type unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). A large unmanned spraying robot of Tokyo FD has been used for large-scale fires, such as at the Bridgestone fire incident.'

He is unable to explain, though, the seeming dearth of robotic assistance at Fukushima. 'Maybe the reachable distance or height of spraying would not be enough for this plant, in addition to the radiation issue. A robot developed after the JCO [previously called Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion Co] incident by METI has been used in exercises at Rokkasho nuclear plant. It is actually being used for monitoring the radiation. Many robots were developed after this incident, but they did not continue.'

He continues: 'The ASC [Active Scope Camera] has not been used in Tohoku-Kanto earthquake. The main damage in this earthquake was caused by the tsunami, and is different from Hanshin-Awaji earthquake. I could not observe many collapsed buildings in Sendai. I offered the use of ASC to Sendai fire department when I returned to Sendai from US on the morning of 13 March, 40 hours after the incidents. We have been collaborating to improve the function and performance of the ASC. The captain's answer was 'We do not have a place to use it at present. Rescue of people who remained in isolated buildings is the top priority now. I will ask when we find the place where the ASC is needed.'

Experts on standby

The lack of robotic support is not at all due to lack of determination of roboticists like Professor Tadokoro, whose team is keen to support the relief effort when needed. Experts from around the world are on standby.

On the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR)'s website Professor Murphy of Texas A&M wrote: 'To the best of my knowledge, as of last night [20 March], ... robots from the members of the International Rescue System Institute have not been actually used, but have been transported to areas where authorities are requesting help.

'Underwater assets appear to be of the most interest, as expected. Research focus in Japan has been primarily in ground robots. CRASAR remains on standby to complement IRS efforts, with Dr Eric Steimle leading the effort of identifying the best small-platform and highly capable sonars combinations and of getting volunteers through our humanitarian Roboticists Without Borders program.

'In the micro-UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] front, Professor Andreas Birk at Jacobs University in Bremen who has participated in field exercises with the German military, has sent us his image fusion and mapping software to use with the CRASAR cache of AirRobots and possibly with the Draganflyers and ISENSYS platforms on call. However, CRASAR remains on standby as there is no mission for us and the proximity of operations to the unstable nuclear situation.'

All these issues lead to serious questions about the vast resources plunged into Japan's robot industry, with some asking: is Japan's faith in robots misplaced? Or are there other issues at play in the search, rescue and containment mission?

The snake robot

Dr Panteha Saeedi is an expert on search-and-rescue robots. Her research on self-organised multi-agent system for search and rescue operations examines the uses of robots in critical situations where human life is at risk.

Asked about the use of robots in Japan and the problems that may be encountered, Dr Saeedi says: 'The snake robot [the Active Scope Camera robot] is the best but still not really ready; it is not autonomous and there are electronic and technical problems with its use.

'The problems mechanically are that the robot can get stuck in the rubble, or can only work for limited periods of time due to the power supply. There are two kinds of robot strategy. The first is low-level command robots, these are usually remote controlled, but the operators have to use them in situations where they rely entirely on the robot for sending back important information [such as images or other data] and operators have to be really skilled in controlling them.

'The second strategy is high-command systems where the operator tells the robot what to do, but the robot is still equipped with sensors and can react to its environment. The robots are used in these disasters in a very strategic fashion. Firstly, they will be used in specific situations where it is too dangerous for humans. Often aerial and other reconnaissance information will be collected first, before deploying the robots to specific areas. These robots are not used en masse to deal with the general destruction.'

Is there hope for robots?

Logically, robots seem like a valid option for search-and-rescue missions to deploy, because of the potential to reduce the number of humans in life-threatening hazard zones, but the reality is that the deployment of rescue robots is limited, because the resources taken to dispatch and gather intelligence from them are in excess of other methods available to rescue crews (such as human and canine support).

Technology is of course being used to help the relief effort – let there be no doubt about that – but these are conventional technologies rather than robotics. This does not mean there is no hope for robots in the area of search and rescue, but a more integrated approach needs to be developed between researchers and rescue crews on the ground.

The events in Tohoku-Kanto give roboticists a real-world opportunity to test their systems and put into use their devices that had been developed in labs for several years. Hopefully, it will force roboticists to evaluate the use of their work in real-world disaster situations.

There is a serious point here: Japan is investing in robotics because it sees robots as a valuable support solution to its country's future problem of an ageing population. The concern is that their lack of use in these desperate and life-threatening scenarios will negate research projects in the field. *

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