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As I sit here, like you, glued to the TV and Internet feeds, listening, watching, and reading about the catastrophe that has struck Japan, one question keeps bugging me: "Where are all the robots?"
Disaster by the numbers
According to news reports, two, three, or possibly even four reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex have reached various states of meltdown. Japan had to raise the legal limits on radiation exposure for engineers working to shut down the reactors. They're cycling workers through the plants in 15-minute increments, to limit exposure to reactors pumping out a year's dose of "ordinary" radiation in less than an hour. The question that nags at me, though, is why anyone is being sent into this hazardous environment at all.
After all, this is Japan. The global leader in robotics. Home to Toyota (NYSE: TM ) , a pioneer in the use of robotics on the automobile factory floor, and Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , maker of the ASIMO droid. While here in the USA, our most famous robots are still vacuuming carpets, in Japan they're being taught to walk, talk, and play the trumpet.
Yet so far, what role have robots played in the unfolding disaster? The U.S. tasked a Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC ) Global Hawk to fly over the reactors and check radiation levels. Japan rolled in a single, solitary "Monirobo" to take a closer look. On Friday, Japan finally asked iRobot (Nasdaq: IRBT ) to send a quartet of PackBot and Warrior robots -- from the other side of the globe, wasting a week of potential contribution and human exposure to potentially dangerous radiation levels.
What might have been, what should be
Is this really the best we can do? Why isn't each and every nuclear plant -- here and in Japan -- already equipped with a phalanx of robots designed to "man the barricades" when all hell breaks loose with the nukes or a natural disaster rears its ugly head? Because according to Japan's International Rescue System Institute, Japan actually did consider building such first-responder robots -- but decided not to because the nuke plants were "safe" ...
Now that we've realized that mistake, Americans are giving generously to help fix the aftermath -- but that's not all we should do. With the threat to human health so great, but the necessity of nuclear energy not declining any time soon, a government program to help develop a safe, robotic alternative that can approach radioactive zones or potentially even interact directly with meltdown zones seems necessary. If this tragedy and others such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where robots were also effectively used, has taught us anything, it's that we're scratching the surface in how advanced robots can assist in tragedies. Let's hope we learn from Japan and are better prepared in the future.
Otherwise we're just sitting here fiddling with a trumpet while Japan burns.