Disaster in Japan, First Week in Review

Posted 19 Mar 2011 at 18:53 UTC by John_RobotsPodcast Share This

Where better for those curious about the use of robots in the current disaster in Japan to turn for the inside scoop than Japan's leading organization for rescue robotics, the International Rescue System Institute (IRS). However, understandably, the staff of IRS have been too busy to update their website. So instead we turn to the blog of Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) and leader of the volunteer group Roboticists Without Borders.

Aside from her expertise and leadership in the field, and her readiness to deploy anywhere she might be needed, Dr. Murphy had another reason to be well acquainted with the state of rescue robotics in Japan and the initial use of search and rescue robots in this particular disaster, as, when the news of the earthquake arrived Japan's leading rescue roboticists were just finishing a week in Texas, participating in a CRASAR-organized event.

The following day, March 12th, the Japanese roboticists had arrived home, and two of the teams which had participated in the exercises in Texas expressed their intention to deploy, one to Sendai and the other to Tokyo. Meanwhile, Dr. Murphy herself remained on standby, awaiting an official invitation.

On Sunday, March 13th, Dr. Murphy addressed the question of whether robots had previously been used in a disaster resulting from an earthquake. The answer was just once, in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, although she has personally joined relief efforts in a number of other disasters. In this entry she also touched on the subject of self-deployment and the problems it can cause.

Her Monday, March 14th entry is more typical blog fare, linking to a couple of articles (Smart Planet, KBTX TV) and identifying a go-to person in Japan for questions about rescue robotics. Then follows a three-day gap, during which at least one report quoted Dr. Murphy as saying ground robots are not going to be much use in this disaster, because the rubble piles were mostly shallow and more easily searched by people and dogs.

Posting again on Thursday, March 17th, Dr. Murphy reported having heard back from colleagues in the field and about inquiries she had been receiving. Fire departments had not shown much interest in ground robots for the rescue phase, but she is seeing considerable interest in robots for recovery - especially inspecting port and underwater infrastructure as well as in removing rubble. She followed this with a quick introduction to the difficulties of designing robots to cope with nuclear disasters, owing to the vulnerability of sensors and integrated circuits in general to radiation.

Later on the 17th Dr. Murphy relays a message received from Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro, IRS Director, in which he expresses puzzlement as to why firefighting robots weren't being used at the Fukushima nuclear facility. Following this Dr. Murphy says

Emergencies are outside the normal so it's hard to [spend] money in anticipation of them, hard to save for that rainy day. The robotics community has so much technology just 18 months from being hardened and packaged for responders to use...

Returning to blog mode, yesterday, Dr. Murphy takes Reuters to task for unfairly criticizing Japan for its failure to produce robots to deal with nuclear disasters.

Keep up with the latest on Dr. Robin Murphy's blog.

See more of the latest robot news!

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