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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Underwater Robots to Help Japan Recovery

A team of experts and four state-of-the-art small underwater vehicles led by Texas A&M with funding from the National Science Foundation will be working with their Japanese counterparts to help with inspect damaged bridges, docks, and pipelines, as well as with victim recovery.  Restoration of utilities, transportation, and shipping typically depend on inspections by manual divers, who must work in murky waters and in fear of debris being washed into them by the high currents.  Advanced underwater vehicles have been used in the aftermath of Hurricanes Wilma and Ike and the Haiti Earthquake, but little is understood about how these robots can be used for disasters or how they can be designed to be more effective. In order to learn more about these technologies while helping local townships, the International Rescue Systems (IRS) institute in Japan invited the team to assist with an intense five-day effort from April 19-23 around Sendai and Minami-sanriku-cho.

The robots vary in size from the tiny football-sized AC-ROV to the suitcase-sized Seamor, making them easy to transport to the ravaged coastline around Sendai. Three of the robots carry specialized sonars that can see through muddy water and one, the Seabotix SARbot, has a gripper designed especially for rescuing victims trapped underwater.  All of the robots have a tether to allow the operators to see and control the vehicles in real time.

The five person team consists of industry experts from AEOS and Seabotix and researchers from Texas A&M and the University of South Florida’s Center for Ocean Technology. The team is being led by Prof. Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, and Dr. Eric Steimle from AEOS, a  Florida start-up company specializing in marine environmental monitoring.  The team members are donating their time and equipment through the CRASAR humanitarian Roboticists Without Borders program. CRASAR is the leading organization in the world and has deployed land, sea, and aerial robots to 11 previous disasters including the 9/11 World Trade Center Collapse and Hurricane Katrina.

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