Japanese earthquake: how ground, aerial, and marine robots could be used for response

We have been watching with distress the earthquake in Japan and offered any assistance we could provide- however, the first 48 hours are critical for life saving. The International Rescue System Institute (Tokoku University) and the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (Texas A&M University)  are the only two centers devoted to disaster robotics, and we work together, so there is considerable expertise available in Japan.

See below for how ground, aerial, and marine robots can be used and best practices are on the home page. Disaster Robotics has 34 case studies worldwide of how these robots have been used at previous earthquakes and disasters through 2013.

I’ll be adding photos and video as I get a chance– this weekend is Aggies Invent: First Responders that we are sponsoring and have two exciting projects based on CRASAR identified (there are 12 others submitted by other response agencies).

Ground robots for locating survivors inside the rubble and speeding up extrication.

Canines typically find survivors but can’t precisely locate where the survivors. Plus dogs can’t provide the “inside view” of the pile of pixie sticks that the extrication team has to be careful not to disturb.  People and canines often can’t get into the rubble because there is often not even a person or dog sized hole that goes all the way from the surface to the interior. Existing boroscopes and cameras on wands can reach about 18 feet or 6 meters into the pile, which means standard US&R equipment is sufficient for single family homes but not apartment buildings or multi-story commercial buildings which are bigger and deeper.

In those case small robots, the size of a lunchbox or smaller, have been used since 2001 (CRASAR at the 9/11 World Trade Center) in go further inside the rubble to where survivors might be and providing the “two for one” of letting the structural specialist visualize how to best remove the rubble to extract. Dr. Tadokoro’s group has one of my favorite small robots, the Active Scope Camera,  that we used together at the Jacksonville Berkman Plaza II collapse. It’s a 6 meter long “caterpillar” robot that can fit in 5cm voids.
Big robots like those used at Fukushima are less valuable because the voids are smaller and the robots can’t move rubble without risking triggering a secondary collapse that will kill the survivors.

UAVs for general reconnaissance and structural inspection.

UAVs have been used since 2005 for disaster response (yes, starting with CRASAR at Hurricane Katrina). The most common uses have been small UAVs for general reconnaissance and for structural inspection. With photogrammetrics, small UAVs are providing geospatial data that are of value to the geologists and public works groups trying to prevent floods, slides, and further collapses. In general, small UAVs are used more frequently because formal responders like the police or fire rescue have access to helicopters and planes. In more remote areas there may be less coverage, so local assets are important. See best practices for UAVs.
One important lesson from the 3/11 earthquake was that the number 1 place to check to see if it was ok and functioning is a hospital!

UMVs for critical underwater infrastructure inspection and reopening ports.

Unmanned marine vehicles, especially ROVs and miniature boats, have been used since 2005 to inspect bridges and reopen ports immediately after an earthquake so that responders can gain access to the affected areas AND get supplies to the hard hit areas. The value of UMVs extends well into the recovery period, both for inspection but also help remap fishing and shipping
channels.

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