March 15, 2011      

As details of the tragic events in Japan continue to unfold, it should come as no surprise that the island nation, which is a world leader in the development of robots, should use that very technology in times of disaster. Indeed, the IEEE Spectrum reports that Japanese officials “are deploying wheeled and snake-like robots to assist emergency responders in the search for survivors” of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Elsewhere, an article posted on CNET reveals that the robots from Japan’s Chiba Institute of Technology’s Future Robotics Technology Center and Tohoku University have been enlisted in the rescue efforts. The article also noted that “Colleagues from Texas A&M University’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) are waiting for an invitation to send U.S.-based rescue bots to Japan. These would include more snake bots, aerial vehicles and rovers on the ground for inspection of buildings and bridges.”

Meanwhile an article by former Japan Times Weekly Editor Yoichi Shimatsu, appearing on the Web site, notes that “Authorities are now locating robots to dispatch for remote control repairs to the reactors because the interior is unsafe for human employees.”

In fact, the idea of using robots at nuclear facilities has plenty of traction. Last year, Britain’s Daily Mail reported on a European project that was developing sophisticated human-like vision technologies, enabling the robots to better observe conditions inside a reactor.  And there have been a number of academic works on the subject, such as this one from IEEE’s digital library.

A study released this March from WinterGreen Research Inc. on so-called snake robots notes they are ideal for navigating confined spaces. The report goes on to note that “Confined spaces exist in nuclear reactors, aircraft, the human body, industrial processing plant, underwater environments, ship-building, space.” WinterGreen predicts that the market for snake-like robots will grow from its current $46 million to $8.5 billion. The sad events in Japan and the resulting concerns worldwide over nuclear safety would tend to corroborate that prediction.