Currently showing: Climate/natural disasters > Disaster risk

02 Feb 14 09:59

Natural catastrophes wreak havoc on our infrastructure and communities. Relief efforts are often seriously hindered when human access is either difficult or impossible.

In March 2011, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, hit the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, flooding the rooms housing the emergency generators. When these failed, the plant's cooling systems shut off, triggering the biggest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl. Experts say that, had we been able to take action in the first 24 hours, perhaps reactor 1 would not have blown up and the entire disaster might have been averted. However, entering reactor 1's compound to release the valve which would have released the hydrogen gas safely into the atmosphere was too dangerous for humans due to radioactivity. 

The damaged reactors released radioactive chemicals, making access too dangerous for humans. This prompted the Japanese government to send a request for robots developed by the US military to help deal with the crisis. The robots went into the plants, and took pictures to help assess the situation. But they couldn't perform human tasks.

Following Fukushima, efforts to develop humanoid robots that could supplement relief efforts accelerated. The aim was to develop robots that could take over when things become dangerous, walking over rubble, climbing ladders, negotiating obstacles and even using tools to make repairs (like releasing the valves at reactor 1).

The US Department of Defense's DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) sees robots as vital in disaster response. DARPA launched a competition and offered to provide contestants with funding of up to 4 million dollars. By the time the BBC documentary I link to below was filmed, DARPA had received over 100 proposals from renowned research groups worldwide, including NASA and MIT. 

When it comes to humanoid robotics, Honda's Asimo, with its advanced artificial intelligence, is Japan's crowning achievement. Following the disaster, many in Japan asked Honda to send Asimo in to help. Sadly, Asimo was incapable of offering the kind of assistance required. Honda immediately offered to produce a robot free of charge to assist TEPCO in the recovery. The robot would be able to open and close valves inside the plant, so as to flush out any radioactive materials left in the pipes and thus bring down radiation levels in the facility. 

The Fukushima disaster also inspired the US government to develop emergency response robots. And of course, many companies are looking to use humanoid robots for many other tasks. For instance, Rethink Robotics' Baxter can learn new tasks in under 5 minutes, making Baxter ideal for manufacturing production lines. At a price tag of just 22,000 USD, many companies have already placed a flurry of orders, hoping to slash their labor costs in the long-term.  

First came the industrial revolution, then the computer revolution… Welcome to the robotics revolution! From driverless cars (expected to dominate our roads by 2050 to AI robot colleagues at work, we'd better get used to our new friends! 

Click here to meet Honda's Asimo, Boston Dynamics' Atlas, KAIST's Hubo (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology robot modeled on Asimo) and others:

Picture of Honda's Asimo courtesy of LSDSL, wikipedia

Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Other

Location: Daichi, Nihonmatsu, Fukushima, Japan


Rashunda Tramble - 3 Feb 2014, 2:01 p.m.

Yes. We need more initiatives like the robot keep this from happening: (Japanese pensioners volunteering to face radiation to stabilize Fukushima).

Although I truly, truly, truly honor these elders who are willing to put their lives on the line, they shouldn't have to do this.

Gregory Tkac - 6 Feb 2014, 9:41 a.m.

What the video fails to mention is that DARPA's primary M.O. is building weaponry - meaning all of the disaster relief-related projects get nice press in these promo videos, but account for a fraction of their creations. How amazing this world would be if it were the other way around!

Alicia Montoya - 7 Feb 2014, 1:07 p.m.

Oh I agree, Greg. And yet, how crappy would this world be if these technologies did not exist and thus could not be used for civilians' benefit!

At the end of the day, it's not about stopping innovation because it can be put to bad use, it should be about stopping those who use technology for bad means. Of course that is harder to apply to the US government... ;)

Alicia Montoya - 7 Feb 2014, 1:08 p.m.

It's almost the silver lining of catastrophes: How we all come together for the greater good. I wonder why it's so much harder to do outside of times of crisis.

Rashunda Tramble - 7 Feb 2014, 1:29 p.m.

I agree too Greg. But that's how the world works. Quite a few science and engineering projects are (or were) funded by government agencies whose main purposes are for defense. If these agencies were around, I'm not sure if initiatives such as the robot program would get off the ground.

Fabrizio Carenzi - 17 Feb 2014, 5:31 p.m.

I agree with Alicia. Internet itself was originally meant to be a high-reliability communication network, for military use (arpanet, or something like that).
A knife: a weapon, or a tool?

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