Robots hit rubble to help earthquake recovery in Japan

Global Hawk provides observation; crawlers look through rubble

Japan is famous for creepy fem-bots and ridiculous Hello-Kitty digital pet-thing pocket pals that just puzzle the rest of the world.

However, the ridiculous skin on many of the more famous of them masked an industry working furiously to stay ahead of its own aging population – to produce robotic attendants that could assist in everyday tasks for the increasing number of aging Japanese unable to take the traditional option of living with children or other family.

The result has been a whole industry becoming increasingly skilled building remote-controlled and semi-autonomous robots able to adapt to a variety of tasks.

Most robots – the heavy duty welders, riveters and benders in car factories, for example -- are really only good at one thing.

General-purpose robots weren't commonly used outside Japan until the last decade, when devices such as a remote-controlled subs designed for oil-derrick maintenance helped recover victims of a helicopter crash, tracked, remote explorers helped border agents explore smuggler tunnels and, most famously, the U.S. Army used them to investigate objects soldiers suspected might be improvised explosive devices.

They did that mainly by rolling up to the objects and poking them. There were a lot of mechanical casualties.

Japanese-made robots designed for search and rescue are helping with recovery following the earthquake, but even the smarter of them will be, at best, marginally useful according to Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASR), as quoted on MSNBC.

Robots designed to find victims in piles of rubble don't have much to dig through, so they might be no more effective, and much slower, than humans or dogs doing the same job, she said.

Some buildings did collapse – which is what most of the robots are designed for – but not that many, and the tsunami washed away much of the debris, Murphy said.

Six teams of researchers from Japanese universities who brought their rescue robots for tests at CRASR, at Texas A&M University, flew back to Japan after the earthquake to help with the recovery.

There will be situations to which the robots are well suited, however, and CRASR will send over its own robots and teams of operators to supplement those of the Japanese if needed, she said.

The U.S. Air Force is flying an unmanned Global Hawks over the Japanese disaster areas to help search for survivors, a mission the remote-controlled plan also filled after the earthquake in Haiti early in 2010. The U.S. military also used a Seabotix remote-controlled underwater vehicle to check for damage to Haitian bridges and seawalls during that recovery.

Robots have been used following other quakes as well.

In addition to cameras that capture visible light, the Global Hawk carries infrared cameras that could find heat signatures of trapped victims, and radar cameras that could find victims, weak spots in rubble and other hazards. The drone can fly as long as 35 hours without landing to refuel, according to manufacturer Northrup Grumman.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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