As a member of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue's (CRASAR) Roboticists Without Borders program SeaBotix' own Sean Newsome and Jesse Rodocker mobilized to Japan to help with relief efforts after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Under the guidance and incredible efforts of Dr. Robin Murphy the five person team headed to Japan on the 17th of April. Comprising the underwater robot team would also include Dr. Eric Steimle (AEOS) and Karen Dreger (USF), with Tetsuya Kimura of the International Rescue Systems Institute (IRS) coordinating logistics while in Japan. A total of four underwater ROV systems were brought as part of the effort including a SeaBotix SARbot, SeaBotix LBV300-5, Seamor and AC-ROV. All systems traveled commercially along with the team members. The trip was funded through the National Science Foundation and donations by companies participating.
Upon arrival into Japan the team met up with locally based IRS, which has a long relationship with CRASAR. In fact, IRS members were in training with Dr. Murphy at Disaster City, College Station, Texas at the time the earthquake struck. The equipment and team was loaded into three small vehicles for transport north. Efforts were to begin the following day in Minamisanriku-cho located in the Miyagi prefecture. The first day was spent largely setting up equipment and meeting with town officials, including Mayor Hitoshi Sato. Minamisanriku-cho was very badly devastated from the tsunami, pictures and videos simply don't do it justice. The town is heavily dependent on fishing and the Mayor hoped that the port could be inspected for debris that might prevent fishing boats from entering. After configuring the various systems for the upcoming day's operations a brief trial was conducted in the port. The SARbot system was mobilized as it offers incredibly rapid setup and deployment. Conditions were reasonable with only light rain and wind. Visibility was poor, but the onboard Tritech Gemini 720i imaging sonar provided exceptional imagery.
The following day was planned as a full on site survey of the port utilizing two ROV systems. Along with the SARbot a Seamor fitted with a Sound Metrics Didson imaging sonar was to be used. Set in separate areas the SARbot was able to not only survey with sonar/video, but also provide accurate positional data with the fitted Tritech Micron Nav USBL positioning system. A thorough search of the port was conducted with surprisingly little debris found shallower than 5 meters. Actually the lack of significant debris of any nature was surprising given the tremendous amount of debris up to the waters edge, suggesting further modeling of this phenomena is needed in order to respond to future events with greater accuracy. The Mayor was very pleased with the information provided and publicly stated that the port facility would be reopened due to our search.
Coast Guard operating SARbotFollowing the search of the port in Minamisanriku-cho the team would mobilize further north to Rikuzentakata where the devastation was equally as bad, if not worse. After a meeting with the local officials including the Mayor efforts were requested to search debris areas for victims of the tsunami. This was a slight surprise as the team expected to spend more time evaluating critical infrastructure. The team mobilized to the first site where shallow water debris piles were located near shore. Due to the previous day's findings it was felt the SARbot was the best system for the job due to the portability and rapid setup/deployment. With the SARbot in the water in only a few minutes searching the debris piles was underway. The water was quite shallow, but near the debris was very dangerous. Several potential entanglements prevented divers from entering the area due to the dangers, making it a perfect environment to deploy ROVs. Several hours were spent visually searching the area and no victims were found. At one stage what appeared to be a hand was located, but turned out to be a glove. The general thought was that any victims caught in the debris would likely be intertwined with the debris and not outside where the ROV could see.
With the area cleared the team mobilized to the next location. The new area was a small cove where surrounding homes had been destroyed and pulled into the water. Again the area proved too dangerous for divers as inspections were to be conducted under and in the debris. The SARbot was quickly put to action with initial searches conducted of the sea floor. Utilizing the tracking system and sonar the SARbot was able to conduct transect search patterns where moderate levels of debris was found. Upon clearing the sea floor attention was refocused to the floating debris. The top of a house was located in the middle of the debris. Operating just below the surface the SARbot flew into the debris and under the roof. Utilizing again the tracking system the team was able to visually inspect the underside of the roof and debris through transect survey lines. There were considerable amounts of personal affects, but again no victims found.
The next days operations would be to continue efforts in searching diver prohibited areas for victims. First on the list was along the canal opening into the harbor where several homes and civil structures were destroyed. The morning location was at the footing of a bridge that had collapsed. SARbot was once again deployed and able to search around the bridge footings and under another debris pile. With the area cleared the team moved on to another small cove similar to the previous day's work. The SARbot was deployed and used to clear the sea floor where a car was found along with various other debris. During the SARbot work the Seamor was also used. Once again, the day concluded without finding any victims.
Our final day would see a short morning search conducted in the bay outside Rikuzentakata. An area filled with civil structure debris was searched with the SARbot providing the location of only small amounts of debris. Once completed the team packed up for the long drive back to Narita airport. The following day a press conference was conducted at the Chiba Institute of Technology where reporters learned more of the efforts conducted.
It was an amazing site to see and an incredible effort on the part of our hosts from IRS and US based CRASAR. The amount of organization, driving and coordination was tremendous. We would like to give special thanks to the team members there on a daily basis:
- Dr. Robin Murphy (CRASAR) for establishing "Roboticists Without Borders" and working hard to get the team to Japan to aid in the relief effort.
- Dr. Eric Steimle (AEOS) for hard work and help with the ROV system as well as coordinating the ROV teams. Plus of course the constant source of humor.
- Karen Dreger (USF) for hard work and patience.
- Tetsuya Kimura (IRS) for coordinating the local arrangements and the countless hours of driving and always identifying our local evacuation route should another earthquake strike, before allowing work to begin.
- Firefighter Fumitoshi Matsuno (IRS) for driving and supporting the effort.
- Kenichi Matabe (IRS) for driving and providing a safe work environment.
- Nobutoshi Hiro for help with translations.
- Kazuyuki Kon for help with the equipment.
- Yudai Hasumi for help with the equipment.
A little about the equipment used. The SARbot is a rapid response rescue system and clearly the ideal ROV for the post disaster effort. It was incredibly quick to setup and deploy (3-5 minutes). The onboard equipment such as the Tritech Gemini 720i imaging sonar, Tritech Micron Nav USBL tracking system and the LYYN video enhancer all coupled together with the capable SARbot ROV not only made the work easier to conduct, it proved that persons new to ROV efforts such as local Coast Guard Divers could relieve the main pilots after only a small amount of training. The SARBot's ease of operation to wide angle imaging to clear video to accurate positional data all made the system ideal.