TOKYO ~ Two years ago this week explosions and meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Genpatsu in northeastern Japan created this nation’s worst man-disaster. The ability to perform heavy duty repair work in the highly radioactive environs of a damaged nuclear reactor was one of the first obstacles that nuclear engineers faced at Fukushima Daiichi. To outside observers of Japan, the answer seemed simple: send in Japan vaunted robots.
But the myth of Japanese robot supremacy was blown to bits by Fukushima Daiichi. Yes, Japan had talking robots, robot children, sexy fembots, robot pets and manufacturing robots, but it hadn’t produced machines mobile, powerful or agile enough to be of any use in a real world disaster scenario. So, the Japanese ate some humble pie and called Boston-based iRobot, maker of the vacuuming robot Roomba, which sent Japan its PackBot and Warrior robots which became the first robots to enter and inspect Fukushima’s Daiichi’s damaged reactors.
But since Fukushima Daiichi, Japan has indeed stepped up its robotics game. Mitsubishi, Toshiba, Honda, Panasonic, and Toyota have all boosted funding and investments of their proprietary bot expertise, and the Japanese government has also increased support toward university robotics laboratories and private-public partnerships. So, if the triple meltdowns had a silver lining, it was the Japanese robotics industry’s new focus away from cute machines and toward capable ones. Akihabara News has a great article by Reno J. Tibke of how Fukushima sparked Japan’s robot renaissance. ~Rachel Roh