Land, sea, and aerial robots will be essential to a speedy Japanese recovery- both victims and economic.
As the nuclear situation and Libya begins to gain more attention in the press, it is important to remember that recovery is an important and challenging task. The majority of the 11,000 missing (presumed dead) are expected to be underwater, requiring an unprecedented use by fire departments of manual divers operating under high personal risk in freezing, highly turbid, debris-filled water where than can see only a meter or so and must conduct most of their work by touch (see our work on hurricane response with marine vehicles at Hurricanes Wilma and Ike). Economic recovery also involves other agencies or companies assessing significant infrastructure underwater (ports, bridge footings, pipelines, etc) as well as literally millions of buildings and homes above ground. Our experience in the US with hurricanes is that this can literally take 2 years to just get started and a decade to see full economic recovery.
Our work with TEEX and the Center for Hazard Reduction and Recovery here at Texas A&M has found that THE most critical barrier is the lack of structural understanding of the various facilities. For example, bridges, seawall, and shipping lanes, and portions of piping, electrical and communication lines are underwater and there are not enough manual divers to rapidly perform assessment; plus the divers must work by touch at high risk to themselves. Railroads, particularly subways, have large underground, high confined segments. As seen in the New Zealand quake, the condition of many buildings are in debate, because the structural engineers legally must assume the worst and thus under safety laws cannot risk going in to find out the true state. Marine robots, especially miniature “boats” that are easy to lift in and out of the water, can help by using specialized sonars to see in turbid water. Ground robots can enter buildings, climb stairs or snake/caterpillar their way through rubble (such what we did at the World Trade Center and Berkman Plaza II collapse- as well as what New Jersey Task Force 1 did in Hackensack) to get interior views. Helicopter-type robots can give a hummingbird’s view perpendicular to damage along a tall building in minutes without requiring man-lifts or cranes to be moved in place (such as what we did post-Hurricane Katrina).
We remain on stand-by to help. We are waiting for the nuclear situation to cool down (literally) and for IRS to have missions for us- sometimes this is harder to use robots because recovery isn’t a fire department responsibility, where IRS has strong ties, but is independently handled by transportation agencies, prefectures and municipalities, utilities, insurance agencies, construction firms, and insurance agencies.
Let’s hope our colleagues here and in Japan can start soon to help with this next phase!
In the meantime our hearts and prayers go out to the Japanese people.