Feature ArticleRobotic Assistance In Disaster Recovery
By Jesse Rodocker
Vice President of Marketing
San Diego, California
The world was shocked by news of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last March. News broadcasts with video and photos illustrated how crippling such a massive disaster can be. There was, of course, the Fukushima nuclear power plant but also the hundreds of miles of coastline that was destroyed. Lives were lost, homes leveled, businesses gone and the daunting prospect of recovery.
In an effort to aid in recovery, the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University made two trips to Japan in April and October last year to identify underwater debris and map points of interest in tsunami-struck ports and harbors. CRASAR conducts participatory research in disaster response and recovery through use of land, air and sea robots to gather invaluable information for search and rescue as well as recovery from the disaster. Members of CRASAR’s Roboticists Without Borders program worked with the International Rescue System Institute (IRS) of Japan, which arranged for invitations from cities and agencies, as self-deployment to disasters is illegal in most jurisdictions and discouraged in all.
Survey Equipment and Preparation
In April, a five-person team led by CRASAR Director Robin Murphy spent a week conducting spot surveys of critical infrastructure in the Minamisanriku-cho and Rikuzentakata townships, which are located in a region of Japan famed for its fishing and scenic beauty similar to Cape Cod.
An example of the operating screen showing sonar, tracking and video.
The team brought four ROV systems—a SeaBotix SARbot, a SeaBotix LBV300-5, a Seamor Marine (Nanaimo, Canada) ROV and an AC-CESS Co. UK Ltd. (Aberdeen, Scotland) AC-ROV—to inspect various underwater structures, flotsam piles, ports and harbors. The goal was to identify underwater debris locations to better understand how to begin the cleanup process and evaluate the structural integrity of critical structures. Japanese officials also expressed an interest in victim recovery. The SARbot became the primary ROV due to its ability to operate in turbid conditions and to be deployed in less than 3 minutes.
With the trip only a few weeks after the disaster, logistics were complicated. Bulldozers had made simple roads, and the debris was overwhelming. Accommodation was not possible near the search areas so time was lost during travel. However, the team managed to cover several areas and assist in clearing Minamisanriku-cho’s port so that the local fishermen could begin returning to sea. This trip helped develop the proper set of tools for future efforts.
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Jesse Rodocker is the co-founder of SeaBotix. In addition to his marketing role, he is an integral part of new product development and in field operations. He participated in both trips to Japan as a member of CRASAR, where his expertise in integrated systems and underwater vehicles was critical.