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Japan’s Absent Robots

Japan is famous for its robots. So why has it relied on foreign built ones during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?

Japan is famous for its advances in robotics. The story of humanoid robot Astro Boy has been a favorite among Japanese for decades, and no doubt inspired the significant efforts that have gone into making the dream of a ‘living’ robot come true. Honda’s famous humanoid robot ASIMO can now walk and ‘run’ (‘running’ consists of both legs being off the ground, which is a significant achievement). Some are taking this a step further and are developing a cybernetic human that’s capable of speaking (and taking to the catwalk).

As such, it shouldn't have been surprising to see robots play crucial roles in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles have been flown over the Fukushima nuclear reactors to take photographs, while ground robots were sent where humans couldn’t go because of the risks of being exposed to dangerous radiation levels. In addition, robots have been used to find missing bodies underwater where visibility is close to zero for humans. And the Emergency Response Headquarters is planning to employ a remotely operated loading shovel robot to remove contaminated debris from within the reactors. 

So, if the deployment of robots isn’t surprising, why am I mentioning it? Because despite Japanese ingenuity in robotics, most of these robots haven’t actually been made in Japan.

Instead, as the Sankei reports, various US and British robots have so far been used. UAVs and ground robots taking pictures are part of the T-hawk produced by US firm Honeywell, while the Global Hawk is manufactured by Northrop Grumman. The underwater search robot is the Sarbot, which is made by US firm Seabotix, while TEPCO is relying on the PackBot and Warrior from iRobot (US) and TALON and Dragon Runner from QinetiQ (UK) to gather data essential for planning further operations.

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It’s not just US and British firms getting involved. The loading shovel robot, Brokk, is Swedish, while the unmanned water cannon truck is made by the German company Putzmeister. The French Embassy in Tokyo has also said that French company GIE Intra has sent its remotely operated robot, which is capable of working in high radiation environments.

To be sure, several Japanese robots have been put to use as well. According to the Yomiuri, an underwater robot RTV has been successfully deployed to find two bodies along the coast of Iwate prefecture. The ground robot Quince, produced by the International Rescue System, has also been used, albeit to a lesser extent than its US and British counterparts.

But why have the Japanese robots been largely confined to playing only a marginal role in these post-accident operations? There are two main reasons.

The first is the lack of a market in Japan for robots aimed at disaster control. According to the Asahi, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry budgeted $30 million to develop six remote-controlled robots to be used in nuclear reactors after the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999. However, none of the electric companies purchased them upon completion. As Hirosaki Hirukawa of the Advanced Industrial Science and Technology lamented in a post-earthquake symposium on robotics technology, products can’t be developed if no one is willing to buy them. Lacking a viable market, Japan’s disaster relief robots have been relatively underdeveloped.

The US robotics industry, in contrast, has been funded generously by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In fact, many of the US robots mentioned above, like the PackBot, are directly developed from iRobot’s contract with DARPA. Also, as they’ve been used in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in crisis situations such as rescue efforts following the September 11 attacks, they have developed a competitive advantage over Japanese robots in terms of reliability.

The second, and more important, reason why the use of Japan’s robots has lagged in the Fukushima response is because of the myth of nuclear safety that has prevailed in Japan for decades. The Japanese public has long believed that nuclear power was a safe, efficient source of energy. Any information that ran contrary to this belief was discouraged over fears it would stoke opposition from those living near nuclear power plants. As such, the possibility of nuclear accidents rarely came up as an issue that needed serious attention at the public level.

The March 11 crisis, of course, revealed this wasn’t the case. And it also highlighted the lack of preparedness in development of Japanese robots. For example, the ground robot that was initially planned for use in these kinds of accidents, the $2 million 'moni-robo,’ has been unusable since it can’t drive over debris (you’d like to think such an ‘unexpected’ situation could easily have been prepared for).

So, what should be done? Prime Minister Naoto Kan has indicated that Japan isn’t ready to abandon nuclear power altogether. With this in mind, Japan’s nuclear power plants will need to spend far more on resources in planning for worst-case scenarios. Increasing government funding for the development of disaster management robots or training personnel to use them would therefore seem to be a good investment, especially as the robots will in many cases have multiple uses.

However, the real issue here isn’t where the robots are being made. The conspicuous absence of Japanese robots is only a symptom of the bigger problem – that Japan’s nuclear power plants were simply ill-prepared for potential accidents. Should we choose to continue along the nuclear path, it’s vital that the plants introduce proper contingency planning, and that future decisions are based on an honest assessment of the inherent risks.