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Rescue robots deployed in Japan earthquake ops

Snake robots and rolling camera bots may help out with operations, with U.S. cyber-rescuers waiting in the wings.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
The Active Scope Camera can worm its way into debris to seek survivors. Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

Rescue robots are making their way to parts of Japan affected by the massive earthquake and tsunamis that devastated coastal areas Friday and in the days following, leaving nearly 6,000 people dead or missing.

A team from Tohoku University led by Satoshi Tadokoro is apparently en route to Sendai with a snakelike robot that can wriggle into debris to hunt for people.

The Active Scope Camera, seen in the 2008 vid below, is a 26-foot long fiberscope covered with a special servomotor system. It has hair-like structures that vibrate to move it forward at a top speed of 2.7 inches per second.

Quince is apparently being deployed in the Tokyo area. Future Robotics Technology Center

The Scope was used in the collapse of the Berkman Plaza parking garage in Jacksonville, Florida in 2007, penetrating 23 feet into the rubble and relaying images to rescuers.

Tadokoro and Japanese colleagues were apparently in Texas for a workshop when the quake struck Japan, but immediately returned to their country on hearing the news.

Fellow researcher Eiji Koyanagi of the Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Center, meanwhile, is gearing up to deploy a robot called Quince that can probe hazardous sites after a disaster.

Quince rolls on treads and can sense chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear dangers in areas that firefighters can't reach. It has an onboard camera and can move about 5.2 feet per second.

Colleagues from Texas A&M University's Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) are waiting for an invitation to send U.S.-based rescue bots to Japan. These would include more snake bots, aerial vehicles and rovers on the ground for inspection of buildings and bridges.

Struggling with the quake and tsunami crisis, as well as a nuclear emergency, Japan needs all the help it can get, human, robotic, and otherwise.