March 16, 2011, 3:47 PM — 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.