By >Akihabaranews Contributor
Japan’s Robot Renaissance (Fukushima’s Silver Lining)
All of Japan took a few moments Monday to pay respect to the losses suffered in the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami Disaster of March 11, 2011. As human beings we move forward, and we work to find the good even in terrible situations. In that spirit, this piece is not a memorial, but hopefully a brief insight into how a terrible natural disaster has invigorated Japan’s robotics industry and brought to light a problem affecting all industrialized societies.
In the first hours and days, when it became clear that a severe nuclear disaster was not only possible at Fukushima, but probably inevitable, response teams and all related oversight bodies desperately needed to know just how bad things were. With lethal levels of radiation building and collecting in the plant, it obviously had to be robots, and surely they’d be sent in right away. As soon as possible, right?
Well, about a week after the initial disaster, Boston, Massachusetts-based iRobot sent four robots and a team of six specialists to assist with orientation and training at Fukushima. iRobot is well-known for the Roomba cleaning robot, but they also make the battle-tested PackBot and Warrior, the first robots to enter and inspect the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster site:
VIDEO: iRobot PackBot & Warrior Making a Difference in Fukushima
But hang on, rewind for a second: It turns out that robots from a company based nearly 12,000km from Fukushima were the first on the scene? But this is Japan – and surely famous for being high-tech Japan would have some kind of reconnaissance or rescue robot able to observe and assess the damage. There is no doubt that it would have been impossible for government regulators or the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to plan every possible contingency for an event like the Tohoku Disaster, but Japan of all places should have had suitable robots on hand, right?
That they didn’t was a surprise to both the Japanese and observers around the world. Yeah, of course it was silly to expect that an armored, radiation-shielded ASIMO would leap to the rescue. But, having to wait for robots from the U.S., endure weeks of training delays, and given the detailed insider reports of poorly executed exploration missions, it was all legitimately surprising. And profoundly unfortunate.
“In Fukushima, what we found out, is that there were many vehicles, and there were a lot of rescue workers, a lot of tools available. And if, in the first few hours of the accident, you could turn off these valves, or close these switches, or connect hoses, then the impact of the disaster would have been much less. Because the radiation was so dangerously high, they could not put people there… Where were all the robots? …Why weren’t they good enough to just turn off a valve? It became a kind of learning moment for us.”
-Professor Paul Oh, Drexler University
DARPA Robotics Challenge HUBO Team Leader
Japan is rightfully famous for its market-dominating industrial manufacturing robots, varied and ambitious social robotics projects, and a number of practical and innovative mobility and personal assistance devices. But in the aftermath of Fukushima, it became clear that in an otherwise mature robotics industry, practical and effective exploration and rescue robotics were severely lacking.
“Japanese people are good with technology, but I hear people say that they don’t know what to make… You can’t really make much new without some kind of catalyst.”
-Kogoro Kurata, Inventor of the Kuratas Robot Mech
Events at Fukushima propelled practical development and funding almost immediately. Private companies such as Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Honda, Panasonic, and Toyota, most of which were already working with robotics, have now increased funding and investments of their proprietary expertise. Government agencies, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, & Industry (METI), have also increased or refocused support toward university robotics laboratories and private-public partnerships.
Japan has indeed stepped up its game. Current as of late-2012, this map pinpoints Japan’s robot manufacturers, robotics laboratories, development projects, and robotics-related startups:
Among those above, the following is just a handful of what’s resulted from Japan’s two-year robot renaissance. Some of the projects are in-use or immediately practical, some are still in the research and testing phases, and there’s one that’s just, well, in the truest sense of both words, crazy and awesome. Jump through the images for more info:
This is the Sakura, developed by the Future Robotics Technology Center at the Chiba Institute of Technology, funded by NEDO.
Quince, also from the Chiba Institute of Technology, was developed independently upon request from TEPCO.
Mitsubishi’s two-armed offering is the Maintenance Equipment Integrated System of Telecontrol Robot, or MEISTeR.
Toshiba is working on a four-legged toaster-shaped robot to one day help with disaster exploration and recovery.
Team SCHAFT, Inc., utilizing technology developed for Kawada Industry’s HRP-2 robot, is Japan’s rather elusive entrant in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (i.e., not much public information available). A competitor, Professor Steven Oh (quoted above), indicates that the team is well regarded and considered a potential winner.
Japan currently leads the world in powered exoskeleton development. On the left is Panasonic-owned ActiveLink’s Power Loader Light, a derivation of the their larger Power Loader, scaled down after the Fukushima disaster pointed to an obvious need. On the right and ahead of the game is the latest version of Cyberdyne’s HAL suit (Hybrid Assistive Limb), complete with full radiation shielding.
Kirobo and Mirata are the Kibo Robot Project’s wonder twins. While unrelated to disaster response, these two stylish robots are all about science – space science! Kirobo’s soon headed to the International Space Station to serve as a communications robot. Which is good, because Robonaut, the only humanoid robot ever to see orbit, never says a word.
ASIMO, Honda’s ongoing humanoid project, of about 27 years(!), continues its iterative improvements. ASIMO has always been intended as a development and demonstration platform, but with the right software suite and little autonomy, there’s clearly a ton of potential for a rescue & recovery spinoff.
Lastly, amid all the discussion of serious, practical robotics, we really shouldn’t forget about the projects undertaken purely out of fun and curiosity. There is no better example than Kuratas, the giant robot mech from Kogoro Kurata’s just-for-fun company, Suidobashi Heavy Industry. If you have a few moments, definitely watch this clever “How to Ride Kuratas” video from last July:
The above represent only a cursory sample of ever-expanding sectors of advanced emergency response, personal assistive, industrial, and simply playful robotics projects underway here. It’s clear that Japan is back on course, and actually it might not even be fair to call this a robotic “renaissance.” Perhaps just a re-focus.
In truth, the lack of preparedness to quickly investigate and perhaps limit the damage at Fukushima could also have happened anywhere else in the developed world. This nuclear disaster, the worst since Chernobyl, was a wake-up call for all of industrialized humanity. The DARPA Robotics Challenge, by far the most ambitious and exciting large-scale robotics competition the world has ever seen, was largely inspired by the inability to avert disaster at Fukushima; that is not to say the response is due exclusively to Japan’s failure to secure a vital energy source, prevent a meltdown, or limit structural and environmental damage, but humanity’s.
We have for decades dreamed of useful robots working among us, and until recently we’ve also been thinking, with a bit of annoyance, “Enough with the hurry up and wait, where’s my robot, already?!” It’s getting closer. Fast. Applying the torque of exponentially increasing brute-force computational capability, the same that that saw a completed draft of the human genome 6 years ahead of schedule, is now de rigueur for all science, including the design of robotics and various forms of non-biological intelligence. We’ve certainly got time before we depend exclusively on brigades of disaster-bot first responders, but probably not as long as most people think.
So we move forward, we see the silver lining, and we do everything we can to lessen the burden of those who follow. Though it cannot be separated from the larger devastation of March 11, 2011, the legacy of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster need not be exclusively one of tragedy.
Beginning on that day two years ago, through the weeks and months and now two years that have followed, the world has marveled at Japan’s rapid, well-organized, and resolute humanitarian response. We have every reason to believe that the technological response will match.
Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.