National | Regional Voices: Fukushima

Doubts cloud Minamisoma robotics project as Fukushima attempts to revive tsunami-hit city

Fukushima Minpo

A coastal area in Fukushima Prefecture’s Minamisoma, which seven years ago was overtaken by tsunami debris, is set to be resurrected as a major robotics research site.

The Fukushima Robot Test Field, a 50-hectare site being built by the Fukushima Prefectural Government, is meant to be used by both domestic and foreign companies to develop robotics technologies.

The site will be the central facility for the Innovation Coast project, the aim of which is to create new industries in tsunami-hit areas. But some of the participants are still waiting for the project to show signs of life.

At the site, large fields for drone tests and a telecommunications tower are scheduled to be completed by June. Along with a runway for the drones, submerged towns and mudslide sites will be re-created to test the ability of robots to distribute goods and engage in disaster-relief activities, a need amplified by the national labor shortage.

The prefectural government has invested about ¥15.5 million in the test site, which will be built within Minamisoma Reconstruction Industrial Park. The project is scheduled to be completed by spring 2020, just before Japan hosts the Olympics.

The central and prefectural governments hope to use the facility as a driving force to revitalize the area, which was heavily damaged by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Though local expectations are high, the reality is that some companies are struggling to find success with the new endeavor.

Koki Watanabe, a 36-year-old board director at precision machinery manufacturer Takawa Seimitsu Co., is hoping to use the test field to increase business. The Minamisoma-based company decided to move into robotics after learning about the research site around 2014, when it was seeking new sources of revenue.

Takawa Seimitsu initially invested about ¥10 million to develop two robots. One can be used to study radioactive material on the seabed and the other to conduct rescue missions in maritime debris fields. It recently completed a third that it hopes will be used to help decommission the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant managed by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.

The firm has been promoting its robots in Fukushima and beyond, but the effort hasn’t paid off yet. Four years on, it has yet to win a single contract.

Government officials say cooperation between major and local companies will increase with time, but Watanabe said his has yet to receive any requests for collaboration.

“If it continues to be like this, we can’t foresee a future,” Watanabe said.

The Minamisoma Municipal Government hasn’t been able to respond clearly when such doubts are raised.

“We are aware of companies’ concerns about new industries,” said Minamisoma official Yoshihiro Kamisawa, 38, who is in charge of promoting robotics. “We would like to send out information about the facility in and out of Fukushima through seminars.”

This section features topics and issues from Fukushima covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in Fukushima Prefecture. The original article was published on April 4.

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