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Robots to the rescue in Japan?

The Active Scope Camera robot is one a ground-based search and rescue robot that has been ruled out for use in search and rescue efforts following the earthquake in Japan.

As the search for survivors and grim recovery of bodies continues following the devastating one-two punch of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, researchers are weighing what types of robots could be most helpful.

There are ground-based robots, for example, designed to climb up and down piles of rubble and slither into otherwise inaccessible cracks to look for survivors. Other robots are designed to work underwater, looking for survivors in cars that fell off bridges and to check the integrity of infrastructure.

Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, in College Station, and one of the world's top experts in rescue robotics, told me today that "ground robots are not going to be much use in this disaster."


That's mostly because ground robots are designed to go places where dogs and people can't — such as into piles of rubble more than 20 feet high. Those types of piles are created when parking garages and skyscrapers collapse.

"A lot of those types of structures didn't collapse," Murphy said. "And if they were down by the tsunami, they got completely washed away."

Instead, most of the rubble piles are shallow enough for people and dogs to search, who are more manageable and work faster than current rescue robots such as the Active Scope Camera, a snakelike robot with a camera for a head that can slither into tight spaces and check for survivors.

Earlier reports suggested that the robotic snake would be released in hard-hit Sendai by a team from Tohuku University led by Satoshi Tadokoro, but that idea "got ruled out very quickly," Murphy said.

The same goes for a second ground robot called Quince, which has tanklike tracks on its body and wheels that can roll over rubble and climb stairs.

Murphy's organization, however, is seeing a need for robots that can maneuver underwater and use sonar and acoustic cameras to search for survivors and check the integrity of vital infrastructure.

"And that makes sense when you think of all the water that's there and you’ve got ports, bridges, pipelines and other critical infrastructure underwater," she said. These underwater robots are small and attached to a tether so they can't be swept away in currents.

The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue has offered its assistance to Japan is on standby awaiting an official invitation to join the effort. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may already be using one robot, Seabotix, which they successfully used to investigate bridge a seawall damage following the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

"What we would be doing is bringing in a different kind, with a different type of expertise to complement what they are doing," she said.

More on search and rescue robots:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).