PRESS RELEASE 4/18/11: Underwater Robots to Help Japan Recovery

Points of Contact:

Dr. Robin Murphy, CRASAR,, via Ms. Kimberly Mallett (979) 845-8737

Joshua Chamot, National Science Foundation,, (703) 292-7730

Tim Schnettler, Texas A&M,, 979-458-2277

Vickie Chachere, University of South Florida, (813) 974-6251

A team of experts and four state-of-the-art small underwater vehicles led by Texas A&M with funding from the National Science Foundation will be working with their Japanese counterparts to help with inspect damaged bridges, docks, and pipelines, as well as with victim recovery.  Restoration of utilities, transportation, and shipping typically depend on inspections by manual divers, who must work in murky waters and in fear of debris being washed into them by the high currents.  Advanced underwater vehicles have been used in the aftermath of Hurricanes Wilma and Ike and the Haiti Earthquake, but little is understood about how these robots can be used for disasters or how they can be designed to be more effective. In order to learn more about these technologies while helping local townships, the International Rescue Systems (IRS) institute in Japan invited the team to assist with an intense five-day effort from April 19-23 around Sendai and Minami-sanriku-cho.

The robots vary in size from the tiny football-sized AC-ROV to the suitcase-sized Seamor, making them easy to transport to the ravaged coastline around Sendai. Three of the robots carry specialized sonars that can see through muddy water and one, the Seabotix SARbot, has a gripper designed especially for rescuing victims trapped underwater.  All of the robots have a tether to allow the operators to see and control the vehicles in real time.

The five person team consists of industry experts from AEOS and Seabotix and researchers from Texas A&M and the University of South Florida’s Center for Ocean Technology. The team is being led by Prof. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, and Dr. Eric Steimle from AEOS, a  Florida start-up company specializing in marine environmental monitoring.  The team members are donating their time and equipment through the CRASAR humanitarian Roboticists Without Borders program. CRASAR is the leading organization in the world and has deployed land, sea, and aerial robots to 11 previous disasters including the 9/11 World Trade Center Collapse and Hurricane Katrina.

A joint Japan-US press conference in Japan is tentatively scheduled for April 24 and photographs, video of the robots and what they are seeing, and updates will be posted to the CRASAR website daily, as internet connections permit. Videoconference interviews with team members may be possible, again depending on the situation.  Dr. Murphy and other team members will be available for follow up interviews.

CRASAR now in Japan with the International Rescue Systems institute, heading to Minami-Sanriku-Cho

Our five person, four marine robot team has arrived in Japan to assist the International Rescue Systems Institute (IRS) with inspecting damaged bridges, docks, and pipelines, as well as with victim recovery for five days. We’ll be experimenting with four different suitcase-sized remotely operated vehicles (ROV), smaller versions of the tethered ROVs used at the BP Oil Spill but just as capable.

Dr. Eric Steimle, AEOS, and Karen Dreger of the University of South Florida’s Center for Ocean Technology have brought a Seamor ROV with advanced imaging sonars and a smaller-than-a-soccer-ball AC-ROV with video. Sean Newsome and Jesse Rodocker have brought two Seabotix ROVs, the SARbot which is optimized for responders to put in the water in 3 minutes to save a person trapped underwater and the LBV-300-5, their powerful work horse ROV. I’ll profile each of the platforms in later blogs.

CRASAR logo peeking out from the back of Dr. Kimura's crowded minivan.

We are traveling with funding from the National Science Foundation (thanks!) and Continental and United- thanks to John Chapman and Hiro Donoshita have been extremely helpful with transporting the gear and expediting us through customs, with lots of help from Dr. Anne Emig and Ms. Kazuko Shinohara of NSF.  Dr. Tetsuya Kimura of IRS has made all the travel arrangements within Japan, including the 3 car convoy needed to haul us north to our first mission at the coastal city of Minami-Sanriku-Cho.

Everyone is donating their time and equipment through the Roboticists Without Borders program- really big shout out to Sean, Jesse, Karen, and especially Eric who has been marshaling the ROVs. It’s hard to believe that we’ve got so many top experts and gear to support our Japanese colleagues and people. I’m sure they are going to be able to do good and that we will all learn from their efforts.

Check out the press release for more details or how to contact us.

Back from Japan, expect to return in a week

I’m back from Japan- interesting work going on with robots at Fukushima. CNN is running the story about the T-Hawks, though the picture looks suspiciously like the shot from the fixed wing taken earlier on March 24 by Air Photo Services (and the caption is ambiguous). I’m reluctant to post with what I’ve heard or been working on due to lack of permission or lack of verification, but I believe there are more robots being used in useful, rational ways than the press knows about. The robotics community is pulling together and supporting the efforts discretely, as press is very distracting during a crisis.

Dr. Eric Steimle and I believe that the last pieces are falling into place to allow us to deploy next week to assist IRS with marine vehicles. Lots of work to be done and we’re excited!

CRASAR in Japan! Fukushima, Recovery Operations Update

I’m in Tokyo. CRASAR has had to turn down one request for marine robots,  is responding to another request for marine vehicles for recovery operations, and I’m here without robots to advise on unmanned systems for the Fukushima reactor response.

It was a difficult week as the CRASAR team had to turn down the request of the Port of Hachinohe and nearby surrounding areas to use unmanned marine vehicles. Our colleagues at the International Rescue Systems Institute, particularly Prof. Fumi Matsuno and the Hachinohe Institute of Technology, set up logistics and gave generously  of their time. But delays in approvals and funding (travel exceeded our reserves so we had to get outside funding)  here in the US caused us to be unable to travel, so we lost that opportunity. Dr. Eric Steimle has pulled together an amazing set of five different marine vehicles and sensors from our members and his contacts- all man portable and can go through check through luggage- through our Roboticists Without Borders program. Everyone on the marine team remains on standby.

In the meantime, I was contacted to advise with the use of robots for the Fukushima reactor incident and am here now in Japan. No robots (the authorities have already lined up the ones they want) and I am not getting within 50 miles of the plant.  Just here with our experience in post-disaster inspection with land, marine, and aerial vehicles to help transfer that experience as needed (or IF needed, as sometimes the most helpful thing to do in a disaster is just to stay out of the way). I haven’t checked in with the Public Information Officer so I hope to be able to provide details within the next day.

And Prof. Tetsuya Kimura from IRS has just sent a request for marine vehicles from Minami-Sanriku-Cho!   Our newest member of Roboticists Without Borders, Seabotix, has a distributor in Japan who is looking at coming to join IRS at Minami-Sanriku-Cho immediately. Then the US team would join them with a different, complementary set of marine vehicles when funding and approvals get in place.

So why marine vehicles? Aren’t the Japanese Self Defense Forces and the Marines (I used to be on that group’s technical advisory board- go CBIRF!) with people and ships doing a massive operation? Sure- but they appear to be focusing on victim recovery and from “human assessable” approaches (wading). This still leaves critical infrastructure inspection (bridges, seawalls, navigational channels, pipelines, etc.) undone- all essential to getting the economy back going, to getting shipments of food and water in, and utilities restored. And also there is the recovery of victims under deeper water.

I’ll try to post more as the situation and PIO approvals permit.

In the end, it’s not about the technology, it’s about people. So we all are keeping the Japanese people in our thoughts and prayers- the terrible impact of the disasters, the sacrifices of the Fukushima plant workers,  the awfulness of not being to find or recover the bodies of loved ones- it’s just hard to comprehend.