Robots to the rescue: searching for survivors, checking on structural damage in Japan

Robots go where humans can't. Here's a look at how robots can save lives.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

The March 11 earthquake is Japan's biggest-ever natural disaster it has had to deal with (and it is one of the five strongest earthquakes recorded in the last century).

According to the United States Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program:

The March 11, 2011 earthquake was an infrequent catastrophe. It far surpassed other earthquakes in the southern Japan Trench of the 20th century, none of which attained M8. A predecessor may have occurred on July 13, 869, when the Sendai area was swept by a large tsunami that Japanese scientists have identified from written records and a sand sheet.

The tsunami wiped away entire villages in Japan. In the wake of destruction, robots are coming to the rescue.

Robots are being deployed in places where humans can't go: swimming underwater to check for bridge damage, flying over buildings to get a new perspective and venturing into toxic areas.

The recovery effort post earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis will be one of the most challenging yet. The death toll is expected to exceed 10,000 people. With the roads and rail lines ruined, getting food and other essential goods to survivors is proving to be quite difficult. Supplies such as dried crackers, rice and water are running in low.

SmartPlanet spoke with Robin R. Murphy, director at Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue of Texas A&M University. As a leading authority in robot rescue missions, Murphy is no stranger to disaster. 

The rescue center has sent robots to 13 disaster locations including the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina and Post-Hurricane Ike. However, the robots have only been sent into one earthquake region before... and that was 2010 Haiti earthquake. There in Haiti, the Seabotix ROV, looked for seawall damage.

This time around, the robots will be sent to Japan. There are several types of robots that might be useful in Japan. Small unmanned aerial vehicles can help check for structure damage in buildings. Snake robots can venture into collapsed buildings. And small underwater remotely operated underwater (ROVs) can look for bridge damage as well as humans. Unmanned ground vehicles with sensors can look for survivors. Also, there are small helicopters that act like hummingbirds, Murphy said.

Murphy said the Japanese authorities decided not to use the caterpillar robot because it's more suited for disasters like the World Trade Center, when buildings collapse. That wasn't really the case in Japan.

"It does look like [the Japanese] are going to use a robot called Quince because its advantage is its mobility and ability to take a large range of sensors and go into toxic gas. People would have to put on protective gear...it's easier for the robot to go in there," Murphy said. Qunice can go into hazardous places and sense biological and other chemical dangers. And the robot can climb stairs and get into upper stories.

Beyond rescue missions, robots can play a part in economics too. The robots can reopen schools as well as manufacturing plants. "Robots should help [Japan] rebuild quicker," Murphy said. Robots can assist hospitals and schools be inspected and be secured. Aerial unmanned vehicles can give civil engineers a point of view they normally can't have, providing them with immediate pictures of the destruction and structural damage.

Given the power outages and damage to the transport infrastructure (and immediate rescue efforts), the production of cars, computer chips and other gadgets will likely be stalled. According to the Washington Post, the shutdowns are caused because of the damage to "the country's transport infrastructure, affecting everything from parts delivery, personnel mobility, and shipping activity at the country's ports."

However, the economic issue is an after-thought, given the severity of the immediate situation in the search for survivors. There aren't enough body bags. There's no running water and no electricity in some hard hit regions of the country.

Murphy told me when her team helped during post-Hurricane Katrina, they went to Mississippi and ended up sharing data with all of the Florida response team and provided the information to structural engineers. "The ground robots were very useful after 9/11, and went where ground responders couldn't go. They helped show areas where it was best to put the cranes," she said. With Hurricane Ike, the robots could help assess structural damage underwater, and go where divers couldn't go.

To get an idea of how the robots are used, here's a video of the rescue robots being deployed at Disaster City near Texas A&M.

Murphy is still waiting for an invitation to visit Japan, but is very sorry about the disaster. "It's not about the technology. It's about making technology to help responders save lives. We all feel really bad for the families in Japan and wish them the best," Murphy said. Before the team goes to a disaster location, they access what the personal risk is and weigh it against the benefit to society.

"We have been asked to bring out unmanned aerial system and underwater vehicles. In an earthquake and hurricane [disaster zone], bridges might be compromised, pipes damaged, seawalls that might be compromised. They want equipment that can locate cars and trains and search for human remains," Murphy said.

One survivor told the Associated Press, that he hasn't hasn't seen many bodies in his town. Why? He thinks "everybody was swept out to sea."

Here's the Google Person Finder.

Photo: TEEX

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