TechFlesh Blog

Japan’s Earthquake Rescue Robots

Though the earthquake that struck Japan’s eastern coast earlier today has left the country with massive destruction and hundreds of deaths, modern tech (and Japan’s impressive level of readiness) are helping the country track survivors and dampen the damage as much as possible. In the future, our ability to cope with natural disasters will only increase.

The Robotic Safety Crawler

Though it may look like a coffin-tank, this robotic crawler is actually just the opposite–a rescue machine that can transport one person to safety. Created for the police department of Yokohama, Japan, this crawler is a rescue-bot that’s capable of carrying a person of up to 250 pounds to safety inside its comforting hull. Its search functions are limited to the standard infrared cameras, but the robot is primarily designed as a remote-controlled stretcher with a much greater degree of safety. It even has sensors inside to monitor a patient’s blood flow and other vital signs on the trip.

The RoboCue

This robot may look like it’s trying to eat a mannequin’s face (stupid robot!), but it’s actually practicing for a controlled rescue operation. The RoboCue, a rescue ‘bot from the Tokyo Fire Department, is designed to locate and safely retrieve victims from disaster sites-specifically bomb sites, but it could be useful for natural disasters as well. It uses ultrasonic sensors and infrared cameras to locate trapped humans, and gently loads the injured person onto a cart to be transported to safety. It even has an onboard oxygen canister.

The 26-Foot-Long Snakebot

Satoshi Tadokoro, one of Japan’s leading rescue-bot researchers, is responsible for this snakebot, aimed more at the “search” part of search and rescue. The 26-foot-long, inch-thin snake actually propels itself with motor-powered nylon bristles. It may not move fast-around two inches per second-but it’s capable of turning sharp corners, climbing 20-degree inclines, and squeezing through tiny gaps, and with its camera “eyes,” it’s capable of sending back images that let rescuers know the situation inside a disaster zone. It’s been successfully tested in both control and real-life situations, helping a rescue team with a parking lot collapse in Florida.

The Roller-Skating Rescuer

Professor Shigeo Hirose at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has three different rescue ‘bots, each designed for a slightly different purpose, demonstrated in this BBC video. The first is a snake-like robot that’s mostly notable for the presence of wheels on all sides-it can continue moving no matter which side is up. The second is a slightly hardier version of the snake-bot-still snake-like, but with treads instead of wheels and a tougher exterior, resistant to dust and water and able to handle more demanding conditions. But the one that’s really interesting is the third, which examines organic biology to figure out which mode of locomotion is best. When moving over very uneven terrain, legs tend to work best-you can position them to land on flatter or sturdier steps, compared to, say, treads. But on flat ground, some sort of wheel is preferable-faster, requiring much less energy, and more stable. So Hirose devised an ingenious convertible leg that can turn into a wheel when necessary, and then propel itself with a movement inspired by rollerskating.

The Breath-Sensor

The Quince is a small but uniquely endowed robot from the Chiba Institute of Technology. About the size “of a children’s play car,” as PhysOrg notes, the Quince is equipped with four sets of wheels, outfitted with treads, and six electric motors. It also has a motorized arm capable of opening doorknobs and delivering food or other supplies. But where it gets really interesting is in its sensors. The Quince has an infrared sensor as well as a carbon-dioxide sensor, which it uses to detect human breath and body warmth.