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Friday, October 19, 2012

Japan's Embarrassment - #9

Welcome to the ninth and final thread that has seen us go from Japan's different way of creating a calendar, different way of telling time, how it led to a different way of building clocks, how the clockmaker expertise led to their building of automatons, how the automatons inspired early robot builders, to the creation of a robotics industry that is envied worldwide... and now to Japan's embarrassment.

Despite the glowing reviews of Japan's success in the robotics industry, has the Japanese ego grown so large that its arrogance is getting in the way of continued growth?

And it all goes back to the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and near-nuclear meltdown that afflicted the northeast coast of Japan.

According Christal Whelan who wrote in the August 2, 2011 edition of The Daily Yomiuri newspaper: "Despite Japan's extraordinary expertise in robotics, the country was unprepared to use them in scenarios resulting from the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. Instead, iRobot's PackBot and Warrior from the United States assumed leading roles in missions."

Now... these aren't the cool robots we've sen from Japan that can play a musical instrument, walk the dog, chat up customers or provide security. Rather these robots are more like the remote-controlled robotics... which is why I'm cutting Japan some slack here... even if Japan itself isn't.

According to a May 8, 2011 Los Angeles Times article written by John Glionna and Yuriko Nagano people in Japan questioned why foreign-built robots had to be used to help during the disaster when the country is supposed to be renowned for its robotics expertise. "Many here are asking why the remote-controlled machines had to be imported. Critics say Japanese scientists have wasted too much of their expertise developing such gimmicky technology such as robots that can sing, dance and play musical instruments rather than more practical versions that could have been put to use in a national emergency."

That's probably true... the Japanese have been making some fine robots, but perhaps are falling behind in robotics. I'm making that distinction here. Let's call a robot something of humanoid shape, while robotics could involve machinery picky and placing objects from one place to another in a series of pre-programmed duties or the remote-controlled equipment that the LA Times folks are talking about.

Now it's not like Japan was completely shut out of supplying robotic equipment to help out. Quince, a Japanese-built robot designed for nuclear and biological disaster rescue was sent.

Here's a You Tube video that was posted back on November 27, 2010:

Looks cool, huh? Four months after this video was posted, Qunice was sent along to Reactor No. 2 at the Dai-ichi nuclear power generating facility in Fukushima-ken.

Quince was developed at Japan's Chiba Institute of Technology and Tohoku University, was put to use investigating harder-to-reach places. The 66-centimeter-long, 48-centimeters-wide robot was designed to work in disaster areas or during a terrorist attack. He had to be upgraded to work in radioactive conditions, and that was done.

The plan was for Quince at Fukushima was to set up a gauge that would measure the contaminated water that was flooding the basement of the facility.

The hang-up? Quince got hung-up on the staircase landing and failed to reach its destination, according to a TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power COmpany) spokesperson.

Epic nuclear fail, robot dude.

And you think that the lessons of the past would have been learned to build a better machine.

Back in 1999 on September 30, an accident occurred in a uranium reprocessing facility in the village of Tokai in Ibaraki-ken in northeastern Japan when three workers were preparing a small batch of fuel for an experimental fast-breeder reactor. After adding a seventh bucket of an aqueous uranium solution known as uranyl nitrate to the tank, criticality was reached with a self-sustaining nuclear fission chain reaction suddenly emitting gamma and neutron radiation. Two of the men died quickly.

During the shut-down of the reactor the next day, 27 more workers who were part of the clean-up were exposed to highly radioactive contaminants. Total: 28 badly hurt and 2 dead.

So... what did Japan do? Well, according to Sakigawara Masahiro (surname first) the general manager at the Future Robotics Technology Center at the Chiba Institute of Technology: "After they (Japan' nuclear regulating body) found that the building that housed the nuclear reactor was safe, authorities said, 'There won't be an accident and we won't need such robots,' and efforts to develop such robots have been scrapped."

So instead of telling the robotics industry to get off their ass and build something that could help them, the nuclear industry stuck its head in the sand and saw through their rose-colored glasses perched atop their collective ass that all was good.

Think happy thoughts.

So... with no need for Japan's robotics industry to develop some worthy technology, and definitely no need to purchase any such technology, Japan's nuclear power industry wasn't quite ready for the disaster that befell it (again) on March 11, 2011.
510 PackBot by iRobot.

"In the U.S., the Department of Defense buys sturdy robots like PackBots for military use, and French law makes it mandatory for its government to spend money on technology such as robots for nuclear emergencies as a precautionary measure," complains Hirukawa Hirohisa (surname first), director of the Intelligent Systems Research Institute at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. "Japan doesn't have that."

Oww. That's pretty damning. And true.

So... much to Japan's shame, since it lacked proper Japanese robots to do the job, TEPCO did what it had to do. Now... consider if you will the number of times I, personally, have bashed TEPCO - not to mention the millions upon millions of others worldwide who have bashed the privately-held company... but I'm going to praise them. Just a bit.

TEPCO realized that Japan's robots simply weren't up to snuff for the work it needed for the worst disaster since Chernobyl (praise is over) and began utilizing the foreign-made robots.

First up... U.S. built remote-controlled robots with tractor treads able to climb stairs and cameras at the end of a retractable arm to get a better look at the damage and measure radiation checking out areas TEPCO realized were too dangerous for people to enter.

The first robots to be used were 510 PackBot robots, made by iRobot, a Bedford, Massachusetts-based company best known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

Hunh. Not only was a US robotics firm chosen to lead the way over a Japanese built 'bot... but the gaijin (foreigner) company built vacuum cleaners. That's gotta suck, Japan.

iRobot (named after the classic Isaac Asimov sci-fi book I, Robot) donated (yes... donated) four robots and sent six trainers to Japan to show them how the robots worked.

Describing one of the 510 PackBots at work in Reactor No.2 Glionna and Nagano of the LA Times wrote: "The little robot rumbled across an otherworldly landscape, its camera lens clouding up in a hostile atmosphere too toxic for human habitation. Its motor whirring, it dispatched a constant stream of images to nervous operators grouped a safe distance away....No larger than a child’s wagon, it bumps across uneven terrain on hours-long forays. One picture released by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. shows a robot arm slowly and awkwardly manipulating a handle on a pair of double doors that lead into a reactor building."
510 PackBot opening doors at the Fukushima reactor.
Perhaps because someone wondered why a gaijin robot was being used and not a more noble Japanese one, which is where Quince the Japanese 'bot comes in. Converted to work under high-radioactivity conditions in a nuclear plant, it uses two main treads and four small tracks on the sides to maneuver over difficult terrain and rubble (as long as no flintstone stairs are involved). LOL.

Other robots used at the Fukushima nuclear power plant included an unmanned water cannon truck consisting of a German-made concrete-pumping vehicle that utilized a remote-control systems made by Toshiba and Hitachi operated from a truck with shields that blocked out radioactivity. The British defense contractor Qinetiq Group provided six mobile robots, ranging from lightweight surveillance machines to heavy construction vehicles, including a remote-controlled Bobcat payloader with night-vision cameras, thermal-imaging systems and radiation detectors. Brokk AB, a Swedish manufacturer of remote-controlled demolition machines (they had sent along robots to clean up waste at Chernobyl after the 1986 nuclear disaster) provided machinery to remove rubble from the reactor buildings at Fukushima.

Well, all is not lost for Japan its robotic efforts at Fukushima. According to Okuno Hiroshi (surname first), a professor who specializes in robotic audition at Kyoto University: "The myth of nuclear safety has long stunted the development of rescue robots in Japan. Beyond research, the training of skilled operators of robots is essential."

But it's not all bad for Japan.
The Active Scope Camera - it worked!
The Active Scope Camera developed by the International Rescue Systems Institute in Japan was quite successful in its efforts at Fukushima. The eight-meter (18-foot) long snakebot creept around like a caterpillar used a fiber-optic camera to move along the ground and rubble to send back images.

And there were others... well, no, except for Quince, that was pretty much it. I should state, however, that the majority of the global robots used probably contained parts designed and manufactured in Japan.

But it's not really enough to stem the tide of humiliation Japan's robotics industry felt when it realized it's level of sophistication was useless when it came time to help its own people avert and survive a disaster.

Andrew Joseph
PS: And that's the end of this thread. Originally it was a simple search of mine for a topic that led me to conclude I couldn't possibly provide enough information unless a back story was offered. one thing led to another, and here we are with an additional eight tales that I hope entertained and informed...

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