Underwater robots and their operators return from Japan

On March 11, 7,000 miles away from the calm waters of Tampa Bay, one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded hit Japan. The resulting tsunami left much of the island in ruins, with more than 15,000 people dead and 9,000 missing.

In response, a team of researchers from USF’s Center for Ocean Technology (COT) went to Japan, where they used remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROV) to assist the Japanese International Rescue Systems Institute.

The five-person team, which used underwater robots to inspect debris and search for bodies in six Japanese coastal areas from April 19 to 23, brought back with them accounts of the rescue effort and immense destruction caused by the disaster.

The team was headed by Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University and a former USF professor. Eric Steimle, program manager for Applied Environmental and Ocean Sciences, and Karen Dreger, researcher at USF’s COT, brought the SeaMor ROV on the trip. This ROV uses 2-D sonar, ideal for water exploration.

These robots have the ability to explore areas too dangerous for human divers. They are controlled by four to six thrusters, and include manipulators and graspers. Steimle likened the ROV control box, with its joysticks and levers, to a straightforward video game.

“To be able to see through the water, you can use the sonar like a flashlight to identify objects,” said Steimle, who received his Ph.D. from USF in 1999 and is a visiting professor of environmental science and policy at USF St. Petersburg. “When you identify some kind of object and get closer, you can use the camera.”

The SeaBotix SARbot was also used during the trip. This ROV uses distance sonar to explore large underwater areas and has front and rear cameras. Designed for search and recovery missions, the SARbot was operated by Dreger, who received her bachelor’s degree in environmental science from USF in 2007 and her master’s degree in 2010.

During the trip, the research team worked in the fishing village of Minamisanriku. They also worked closely with the Japanese Coast Guard at five sites in Rikuzentakata, surveying acres of debris.

“We spent about six to eight hours working in the field each day,” Dreger said. “We were always busy and on the go. We tried to spend as much time as we could working each day, since our trip was relatively short.”

In Minamisanriku the ROVs were sent out for port inspections. They ensured that there was no debris five meters below the surface that would interfere with boat traffic. The people rely on the availability of the harbor to make a living, as Minamisanriku is predominately a fishing community.

“Based on our work there and our finding and recommendations, the mayor of that city reopened the port,” Dreger said. “It was the first step to bringing in more supplies, but also helping the people who survived return to their livelihood.”

No bodies were found by the ROVs. They did, however, find purses, backpacks, two cars and roofs ripped from homes.

The SARbot was able to explore inside of the houses, which had remained largely intact on the interior. License plate numbers and identification pulled from inside the bags were given to the Japanese Coast Guard to identify possible victims or missing persons.

Witnessing the devastation firsthand was a surreal experience for both Dreger and Steimle, who said it is difficult to describe exactly how bad things were.

“You see it on TV or go online to watch the videos, but you turn the corner coming down into the valley and it looks fake,” Steimle said. “I tried to block it out most of the time, but every now and then I’d think about it or get the local story of what had happened, and it would hit close to home. It was very, very bad.”

Damage varied based on location, as houses at higher altitudes did not get touched by the destructive waters. Some of these untouched areas are separated from the impact zones by mere feet, Steimle said.

Ultimately, the USF research team’s goal was to use the ROVs to help the people of Japan resume their lives after the disaster.

“There are a lot of environmental things you can do with these instruments,” Dreger said, “but to use them for a human aspect is great.”

Steimle said he witnessed the incredible ability of the Japanese to move on and deal with the devastation. Still, he said he hopes that the work the USF COT has done helped ease the road to recovery.

“Using this technology allows for closure,” Steimle said. “It gives people that sense of completeness and helps them move on.”