Archive for March, 2011

IRS in Japan uses UGV, CRASAR has more missions but waiting

In the "easy" line of sight part of the gym

We’ve confirmed that the International Rescue Systems Institute used one of the ground robots that was here at Disaster City for our joint workshop to explore a partially collapsed gym on 3-18 and in the meantime have generated more missions for our marine vehicle members at Hachinohe and surrounding ports, complementing new apps for our ground and aerial robots.  Dr. Eric Steimle, our marine vehicle lead for our Roboticists Without Borders program, spent most of yesterday working with various companies and groups such as the Center for Ocean Technology at USF and AUVSI to match up capabilities with needs and with transportation and power logistical constraints. Eric led the marine vehicle effort for CRASAR for our post-Hurricane Wilma and Ike.

CRASAR is working on finalizing logistics and permissions (and hopefully additional funding), we hope to depart soon, the situation at Fukushima permitting.

I’ll provide an update later, but the IRS report echoed iRobot’s comments about using their robots (both are the same size and general capability) for the Fukushima reactors- saying they were glad the doors in the gym were open. Shut or locked doors are major problems for robots operating in “human navigable” spaces, where robots are going where people COULD go, but shouldn’t.

Good job, IRS!!

Japan: status of rescue robots there and elsewhere has begun to follow this blog (thank you!) and has gently taken me to task for gaps in posting… so let me recap where we are.

To the best of my knowledge as of last night when I exchanged email with IRS members, robots from the members of the International Rescue System Institute have not been actually used but have been transported to areas where authorities are requesting help. Underwater assets appear to be of the most interest, as expected (see earlier blogs). Research focus in Japan has been primarily in ground robots. CRASAR remains on stand-by to complement IRS efforts, with Dr. Eric Steimle leading the effort of identifying the best small platform/highly capable sonars combinations for the situations being described to us and getting volunteers through our humanitarian Roboticists Without Borders program. In the micro-UAV front, Prof. Andreas Birk at Jacobs University in Bremen who has participated in field exercises with the German military has sent us his image fusion and mapping software to use with the CRASAR cache of AirRobots and possibly with the Draganflyers and ISENSYS platforms on call.  However, CRASAR remains on stand-by as there is no mission for us and the proximity of operations to the unstable nuclear situation.

I continue to get asked about nuclear response robots, so let me recap what I’m hearing about that. A monirobo has been on the site as well as teleoperated fire fighting robots for several days now- the fire fighting robots appear to have been used, I can’t tell about the monirobo.   iRobot has apparently sent some packbots as well- they are great for low-level radiation situations (or for high radiation die-in-place conditions)and much more agile that the traditional tank style monirobo. I haven’t seen or heard anything about the actual use of the packbots. I haven’t heard anything about Red Zone robots (Red Whitaker’s company that made the robots used for Chernobyl and Three Mile Island)- but usually those types of robots are custom made after the fact.

Here’s an example of a small, easily to literally throw in the water unmanned surface vehicle which was used to inspect a bridge damaged by Hurricane Ike and here’s a link to a paper about the use at Wilma and Ike.

Robots and Recovery- why you need robots even more now

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.

Reuters Slams Japan for Lack of Nuclear Disaster Robots

Reuters skewers Japan for leading the world in manufacturing robots and for having rescue robots but not having nuclear disaster robots. This is a bit unfair as pretty much no country has robots (or at least barely plural) for nuclear disasters- denial and spending the necessary R&D money for this very, very hard type of robot is not unique to the Japanese, the US is in similar shape.

Thanks to team member Prof. Howie Choset for passing this along!

Word from Japan on robots and Fukushima

We’ve heard from Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro, director the International Rescue Systems Institute, who is the leading rescue robots researcher in Japan. He’s been asked about why aren’t robots being used for the reactor– here’s his response:

Several types of firefighting robots have been developed by Tokyo FD,
Osaka FD, Kanagawa FD, etc. in Japan.  Most of them are small type UGV.
A large unmanned spraying robot of Tokyo FD has been used for
large-scale fires, such as at Bridgestone fire incident.  I do not know
why it is not used at Fukushima case.  Maybe the reachable
distance/height of spraying would not be enough for this plant, in
addition to the radiation issue.  A robot developed after the JCO
incident by METI has been used in exercises at Rokkasho nuclear plant.
It is being actually used for monitoring the radiation.  Many robots
were developed after this incident, but they did not continued.  Power
plant conpanies mentioned that they did not need such robots because
their nuclear plants never have accidents and are safe.

This is a common problem. Emergencies are outside the normal so it’s hard to speed 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…

I remain depressed that the US US&R teams carry with them pretty much the same technology they had in 2001 at the World Trade Center. Sure a Predator or Global Hawk may be circling overhead and that imagery eventually is scrubbed and makes it to them if they have sufficient bandwidth, but robots and sensors in their hands and under their control, nope.

From Quake to Nuclear Disaster: Different Problems, Different Robots

We’ve heard from some of our colleagues in the field about rescue robots but now the issue has shifted to nuclear response… I’m getting lots of inquiries.

About the rescue robots: The rescue roboticists had contacted various fire departments who for this phase did not need the ground robots (see previous blogs) as the tasks are getting people off the tops of buildings or trying to recover bodies. However, we have reports that there is considerable interest in robots for recovery- especially inspecting port and underwater infrastructure as well as in removing rubble. I have no confirmation that they have deployed any robots for these tasks. We have shifted our standby cache to include more underwater vehicles with very accurate sonars.

Now to nuclear response–

Red Whittaker at the Field Robotics Institute at CMU is the expert in using robots for nuclear disasters (had robots at the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island- but many months later). A few years ago CRASAR looked at what it would take to use our small rescue robots to search for survivors in the aftermath of a “dirty bomb” where radiation wouldn’t be as intense (the scenario from The Sum of All Fears)- and even for this “easy” case, it  wasn’t feasible.

Sensors would probably be the first to go– video and cameras are fairly sensitive to radiation from their CCD chips. It’s impossible to work remotely if you can’t see.

The bigger, slower bomb squad robots were first invented by Oak Ridge National Laboratories to handle nuclear disasters which spun off Remotec. These robots have to big to carry all the shielding. The newer ones are lighter and less protected and the IED robots have evolved to be even lighter- so less reliable in a nuclear disaster. So in some sense you need a dinosaur robot- big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors)– and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important… You don’t know how long you’ve got.

Big and stupid means slow. And limited battery times- and who will be changing those batteries? You have to go in and out… losing time at each “lap.”

Stupid is the wrong way to go based on our human-robot interaction studies. Less sensors, particularly cameras means harder to control or move quickly. And less sensors means no autonomy so if you get tired, the robot runs into things. And that could make things worse. Or ruin the robot.  So you want more autonomy so that the robot drives itself, much like a horse. The person directs but the horse actually controls its own motions and adjusts it gait and goes around obstacles.

And then there’s the issue of using a tether or wireless– if radiation doesn’t interfere with wireless, what’s left of the walls and the various containment structures will.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the Japanese. We are, of course, worried about our colleagues in Sendai which is 55 miles from the reactors. There’s no fuel to evacuate.

Discovery News

Discovery News has picked up the CRASAR blog.

CBS Small Planet, KBTX TV, Discovery News interviews and videos

Check out this online interview which discusses the Japanese robots and KBTX TV ran a nice follow up on the JST/RESPOND-R exercise that CRASAR hosted with the Japanese rescue robot researchers. (See earlier posts) It’s just morning there now- I’m hoping for an update shortly and maybe the official invitation to participate.  The contact person for the Japanese rescue robotics work is Prof. Fumitoshi Matsuno at Prof. Matsuno is the vice president of the International Rescue Systems institute, which is our Japanese counterpart, and is in Kyoto which has communications. Discovery News also posted this article.

IEEE Spectrum Blog about Rescue Robots in Japan

Check out this story.

Have Robots Been Used in Previous Earthquakes?

I’ve been asked by Erico Guizzo, robotics editor at IEEE Spectrum, asks “have robots been used in previous quakes?” The answer is “yes”- just one,  the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

The US Army Corps of Engineers used a Seabotix ROV (remotely operated underwater  vehicle) to investigate bridge and seawall damage as part of the US assistance to the Haitian government.  An aerospace company from the US self-deployed and flew a small fixed-wing UAV to get an overview of the damage near an orphanage  in ignorance of the Haitian airspace prohibition on all UAVs (the Predator views you saw were taken from outside Haitian airspace)- which caused a bit of a flap (no pun intended).  Note: CRASAR offered (as always, at no cost through our Roboticists Without Borders program) small AirRobot and ISENSYS helicopters for rapid assessment, a VideoRay ROV, and a AEOS water Surface Vehicle with a special sonar particularly well suited for bridge inspection in shallow water, and our usual ground vehicles suited for commercial building collapses (not a lot in Haiti)   to support the response through US Southern Command but was declined by the Haitian officials who said with ample justification that there were too many responders and NGOs pouring in (at that point many were self-deployed, which has the unintended consequence of saturating the officials and causing them to say just say no).

Prof. Daniele Nardi at Sapienza University of Rome, who is one of the leading European researchers in rescue robotics, demonstrated  his micro-quad rotor UAV in the aftermath of the 2009 L’aquila earthquake (I got to attend!), but that was intended for the Fire Service to evaluate the device and not a part of the actual response.