Japan looks to use drones for disaster mitigation

JIJI, Staff Report

Municipalities and private firms are hoping robots and drones will be able to help with future disaster recovery efforts — an initiative that incorporates lessons learned from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake — by sending out warnings, gauging damage and accessing places were people cannot.

To that end, the Sendai Municipal Government is testing a speaker-equipped drone for sending evacuation warnings during flight. Drones are quieter than helicopters, meaning messages would be easier for those on the ground to hear, city officials said.

In such a system, the drone would automatically take flight after receiving a warning from the country’s J-Alert early warning system and would issue evacuation messages to local residents.

In the 2011 disaster, two city government workers and three volunteer fire department rescuers were killed in the tsunami while warning local residents to evacuate.

“Drones have no risk of being engulfed by tsunami or caught in a traffic jam,” says Koji Muto, 46, an official at Sendai’s crisis management division.

“As a massive earthquake is projected to occur along the Nankai Trough off the country’s Pacific coast, we want to put our drone system into practical use as soon as possible,” he says. The city aims to start using the system within a few years.

Last June, when a fire occurred in a mountain area in Minamisoma in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture, the city’s fire department used a drone to determine the fire’s location as it was unable to send a helicopter due to poor visibility. Firefighters left for the scene after pinpointing the site of the fire using images from the drone.

Robots are already used in a wide range of operations in dealing with disasters, including search missions, underwater investigations and removing debris.

Robots have also been used to check conditions inside reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But because such robots have limited functionality and are costly, it is difficult to sell them commercially, industry sources said.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. has developed a remote-controlled robot that can be used in locations filled with flammable gases, such as inside tunnels after accidents.

The robot is designed so as not to cause ignition, and can clear obstacles.

Due to slow sales for the built-to-order product, the firm has made modifications so it can be used for plant inspections. One unit costs ¥50 million.

Demand for disaster response robots is high but it’s a niche market, noted Ken Onishi of Mitsubishi Heavy’s Nuclear Energy Systems Division.

“We want the central government to support the development of robots for such purposes by allocating (funds),” he said.

Facilities for carrying out tests are also needed to develop such robots.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government is working on constructing large robot test fields in Minamisoma and Namie, aiming to launch operations at some facilities within the current fiscal year.

By drawing the robot industry to the coastal area devastated by tsunami, the prefectural government also aims to promote reconstruction efforts.