Japan is a country often associated with advanced robotics. It has devised machines that can joke, dance, babble, and even baby-sit. Yet when disaster struck, Japan’s domestic robot corps was found wanting. In March 2011, a record 9-magnitude quake shook the northern foundations of Honshu, Japan’s main isle, and unleashed a 40-meter tsunami that claimed thousands of lives, shattered homes and placed a large nuclear power station in a critical condition.
Japan was in immediate need of robots, as only machines could be expected to enter the highly radioactive zone inside the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Station. But instead of Japanese bots, it was U.S.-made PackBots that rolled over the line. The Japanese public appealed to its robot makers to help, even going so far as to implore Honda’s humanoid robot Asimo, via its Twitter account, to lend a hand. Experts bemoaned the fact that Japan did not even have an organization in charge of deploying robots in emergencies.
But that would soon start to change as academia and heavy industry went to work collaborating to finding a practical way forward. The past five years have seen advances in a variety of remotely controlled robot types steadily increase. These have helped in overcoming the challenges posed at the stricken Fukushima nuclear sites, and the results have led to robots that not only have provided invaluable aid there, but are suitable for use at disaster sites such as tunnel collapses and dangerous industrial situations where hazardous gasses impede rapid human intervention.