Thoughts on the Second Anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Fukushima

 

Today is the second anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the associated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that have taken over 15,000 lives and will cost at least $34 billion.  Our hearts and prayers remain with the Japanese people and all of us at CRASAR are honored to have assisted in a small way.

 

These terrible events resulted in an unprecedented use of rescue robots provided by nearly a dozen groups to agencies or stakeholders.  A ground robot and a ground-aerial team assisted with earthquake damage inspection. Five marine vehicles were used for tsunami recovery operations. Two unmanned aerial vehicles and at least six different ground robots have been reported at Fukushima. Indeed, Fukushima was notable for the press asking where were the robots? This is quite a change since the first use of rescue robots 10 years earlier at the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, which saw only six robots from CRASAR used by only two agencies.

 

Yet, two years later after Tohoku, the use of rescue robots remains ad hoc, with agencies all over the world unaware of capabilities that have been proven in other disasters or in related applications such as inspection or military operations. In the United States, New Jersey Task Force 1 is the only urban search and rescue team with robots; no FEMA urban search and rescue team has a robot of any type.

 

While agencies largely remain unaware of rescue robotics, the 2011 events appear to have captured the attention of robotics researchers. Based on my observations of the popular press and reviews of articles and grants, disasters have become heavily cited as a potential societal impact for any number of clever concepts in mobility and control–  robot insects and snakes, exoskeletons, UAVs with arms, robots that unfold like proteins, and so on.

 

Will these innovative lines of basic research in mobility and control really contribute to disaster prevention, response, or recovery? As with all worthy basic research, it’s hard to predict where an innovation will actually be transformative, only that it will be.  The ideas are exciting and I look forward to seeing where they will go in the next 20 years. But I worry: will the hype promoting these futuristic mechanisms confuse agencies as to what is available now? Will the disconnect of these imaginative mechanisms from how disaster preparedness and response actually works and what is needed scare the agencies away?

 

What is needed is better perception and human-robot interaction. A recent survey of the IEEE Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics (SSRR) technical committee reported the biggest technical barriers are perception and human-robot interaction, not mobility and control. SSRR, the one scientific community dedicated to disaster robotics, concluded that it is not the lack of mature mechanisms that is keeping robot deployments ad hoc. Rather it is the lack of sensors, image enhancements, interfaces,  visualizations, etc., that is holding back adoption.  Robots often don’t fit into the overall data-to-decision process as they don’t provide enough sensing. They are often designed to simplify the workload on the operator, ignoring the needs of the multiple decision makers who need to see the data from the robot in order to extract information specific to structural integrity, environmental quality, survivor health, etc. The agencies can’t buy systems they can drive but can’t effectively use.

 

The legacy of the first 10 years of rescue robotics is that the Public expects to see robots at disasters. I hope the legacy of the next 10 years is that agencies will have the robots on hand and the ability to use them effectively.

 

The CRASARinfo channel at YouTube has video from some of our efforts at the Tohoku tsunami, see http://www.youtube.com/user/crasarinfo.

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