When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck last year and a tsunami was unleashed on the Fukishima nuclear facility, many people asked why robots such as Honda's ASIMO were not available for the rescue and stabilization efforts.
"When I heard that foreign robots were the first to work at the site of the Fukushima No. 1 plant accident, I felt deep regret," said Satoshi Shigemi, chief engineer for the ASIMO. "So I started to think about what I could do to assist (recovery efforts)."
Shigemi said the Fukushima crisis has shown that one of the primary uses of robots is at disaster sites that are inaccessible to humans, adding that Honda, whose development of robots has been aimed at supporting people in need of care, must broaden the scope of its robotics research and development. Many of the domestic Japanese robots did not have the necessary radiation shielding that would allow their internal electronics to work at the highly radioactive Fukishima site either.
Robots have been involved in the clean up. The first robots on site at Fukishima were iRobot Packbots. The two Packbot robots, developed by Massachusetts-based technology firm iRobot Corp. and used by the U.S. military, proved invaluable during early efforts to ascertain the full extent of the wreckage inside the units, which suffered huge structural damage as a result of hydrogen explosions.
The silver lining (for robot development)? It remains unclear if Japan can build on the robotic technologies developed amid the Fukushima nuclear accident and undertake a sustained long-term initiative to catch up with — and then hopefully advance — current technologies. The crisis did greatly show the robot development community a pressing need for robotic solutions, and has provided some very clear engineering requirements for research and development.