Robots aren't up to rescue job following disasters in Japan
Debris keeps out radiation-resistant 'bots; radiation keeps out diggers
Just as a U.S.-based researcher predicted, Japanese rubble-searching robots haven’t been able to make as much of a contribution to rescue and recovery operations as they might have.
The big problem turns out to be a combination of earthquake and radiation damage, not the water hazards she expected would be the problem, however.
When the quake and resulting tsunami hit Japan three weeks ago, six teams of Japanese robotics researchers were in Disaster City – a robot testing facility in Texas, testing their creations with leading robot researcher Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University.
They flew home right away to help where they could, though robots designed to dig through piles of rubble wouldn’t be very effective in a disaster in which the big problem wasn’t buildings collapsing, but floods and mud.
Radiation, not mud, is still the big problem, partially because the radiation in stricken nuclear-power plants is too intense for workers to get close.
That should be a good opportunity to send in a few of the uncountable variety of Japanese robot to fix things, presumably because they are less vulnerable to the harsh conditions than the operators driving them.
The radiation is so intense that many of the robots can’t do the job, however, and the rubble is too heavy for the radiation-hardened robots to get where they need to go.
Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Center sent a robot called Moni Robo A – a remote-controlled vehicle with a video cameras, radiation and gas sensors -- to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to help scope out the damage.
The tracked ‘bot can’t make it through the mass of obstacles washed up by the tsunami and a series of hydrogen explosions within the plant.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy is sending more radiation-resistant robots to help, according to testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week.
Peter Lyons, the acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy who testified, didn’t give details on what kind of robots it would send or what their additional capabilities might be.
The Air Force has been using a Global Hawk long-range observation drone to help search for survivors. Massachusetts-based iRobot, which makes both Roomba robotic vacuums for consumers and PackBot IED-probing remote-controlled vehicles for the U.S. military, has also sent four robots to assist.
The PackBot is a tracked, mid-sized remote-controlled vehicle, much like the Moni Robo A, so it’s not clear how much more it will be able to help than the Japanese ‘bot.
So far, despite the enormous promise for robots in exactly the kind of dangerous work in hazardous environments with which the Japanese are dealing, robots seem not to be up to the job quite yet.