A show in Japan offers a preview of robots potentially leading rescue operations in the future.

A show in Japan offers a preview of robots potentially leading rescue operations in the future.
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Using a drone camera, they locate a survivor trapped in the debris. A tracked robot delivers water to the survivor while teams equipped with exoskeletons work to clear a path for an autonomous stretcher, which will transport her to safety.

The Japan Mobility Show showcases a futuristic concept, demonstrating how technology can assist and, at times, take the place of humans in a country facing labor shortages and familiar with frequent disasters. To add an element of reassurance, the simulated disaster scenario is initiated by Godzilla, a fictional character who has been causing havoc in Japanese disaster films since the 1950s.

In Japan, almost 30 percent of the population is aged 65 and older. Tomoyuki Izu, the founder of Attraclab, a local startup specializing in autonomous mobility, pointed out that due to the population decline, there is a diminishing pool of individuals available for hazardous tasks.

“I aim to provide assistance to people like firefighters with my machines,” said Izu, who is 61 years old and the founder of Attraclab.

Attraclab was the company responsible for co-developing the compact delivery robot seen maneuvering through the simulated rubble at the Japan Mobility Show, and they also designed the remote-controlled stretcher that operates on wheels or tracks.

The Japanese government currently shows a preference for using “traditional equipment” in disaster relief efforts, as mentioned by Izu during the event, which is open to the public this weekend. However, Izu believes that there will be a demand for more advanced technology in the future.

He explained, “There’s a lot of anime featuring humanoid robots in Japan, and as a result, people have an affinity for them. But these autonomous vehicles are still relatively unfamiliar to them.”

Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) has been working on the development of Kaleido, a sturdy humanoid robot with the capability to gently lift and transport injured individuals since 2016.

Insufficient workforce

“In the future, this robot will have the capability to rescue individuals or venture into hazardous environments, such as fire incidents,” noted Itsuki Goda, a member of KHI’s robotics division. However, he acknowledged that the machine still requires further improvement in its scanning abilities to navigate challenging terrain.

“It will require several more years of development before it can be effectively used in real-life scenarios, where conditions are constantly changing,” he informed AFP.

Goda assured that Kaleido’s existing load capacity of 60 kilograms (132 pounds) will be enhanced with the introduction of a new prototype in the near future. However, the issue of cost remains a concern.

Currently, this robot is “perhaps 10 times more expensive than a human, but if we manufacture 10,000 units annually, the price will decrease significantly,” Goda stated.

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, there has been a surge in another specialized sector: the development of robots designed to clean up disaster-stricken areas that are challenging or perilous to access. Engineering company Sugino Machine showcased a robust yet compact robotic arm mounted on crawlers, capable of operating in locations inaccessible to emergency responders.

The machine was constructed in 2018 for a government-run atomic research agency, as part of Japan’s ongoing efforts to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Akira Inujima from Sugino Machine explained, “It can be employed for the initial assessment of damage, debris removal, or handling heavy objects that are beyond human capabilities.” The robot’s arm is adaptable, allowing for the attachment of various tools, including sensors for images, temperature, radioactivity, and a high-pressure water lance.

“We are facing a labor shortage. Completely relying on robots is challenging. However, we can provide solutions to augment human work,” he stated.

He went on to say, “After the Fukushima incident, we’ve been able to advance technologically because there have been successive projects, often with strong government support. These projects, such as debris removal, have required our expertise.”

Inujima emphasized the importance of maintaining and advancing this work rather than letting it decline.

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