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.