Minamisōma Robot Test Field: A Potential Key to Recovery in Fukushima’s HamadōriEconomy Technology
Testing Robots and Drones
“We’re fully booked three months in advance.”
This gleeful comment comes not from the operator of a popular restaurant or traditional inn rejoicing the return of tourism, but a representative of the Fukushima Robot Test Field, a facility operated by Fukushima Innovation Coast Framework. Occupying a 500,000 square-meter plot in Minamisōma in Fukushima Prefecture, the gigantic facility can be used to subject robots and drones to a myriad of tests. Having visited the field in March 2020 before it had fully opened, I was surprised to find it in such hot demand.
On the day I visited, presentations and discussions were being held on the use of drones and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to respond to disasters. Satō Kazuhiko, director of the Fukushima Emergency Response Training Institute that hosted the event, says that the Robot Test Field holds similar drills or tests once every two months. In addition to abundant open space, the field has zones simulating disaster conditions, including piled rubble and dirt slopes, making it highly suited to real-world testing.
Crews from fire departments in Minamisōma, Aizuwakamatsu, and Kitakata participated in the drill. An exercise conducted in the flooded urban zone, in which a drone was used to transport and drop aid, showcased ways that the remotely operated aircraft can be used for reconnaissance and how UGVs can be used for transporting supplies and casualties across wide areas affected by disaster. The discussions held provided important hints for robot developers, with the participants from Aizuwakamatsu expressing interest in incorporating robots into their arsenal of rescue tools, noting that they would greatly facilitate transporting equipment and casualties after accidents in mountainous areas.
Concentrating on Product Development
Fukushima’s Hamadōri region along the Pacific coast was devastated by the tsunami and nuclear disaster triggered by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. While the local economy was highly dependent on the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants and related industries, the facilities, the former located in Ōkuma and Futaba and the latter in Nahara, are in the process of being decommissioned. To further Hamadōri’s recovery and encourage former residents to return, new key industries need to be established to take their place.
One of the focuses of the Fukushima Innovation Coast concept is robots and drones, both of which are technologies that have seen significant advances in recent years. Drones are also indispensable when decommissioning nuclear reactors in radioactive environments, so the technology holds promise for both reconstruction efforts and decommissioning work. The Robot Test Field also serves as an important hub for attracting robot manufacturers to the area.
For robot manufacturers, access to suitable test environments is essential. Self-driving cars require test courses that resemble actual urban environments, with traffic lights and road signs, and drones need abundant open space in addition to runways and heliports to perform test flights safely. Japanese drone manufacturers have tended to lag behind their competitors in the United States and China, where the greater availability of open spaces makes it easier to establish test environments, as have start-ups, who face a high bar for obtaining funding. The facility’s operators aim to help overcome the first hurdle by providing a top-quality testing environment, which they hope will attract high-tech businesses to the Hamadōri area.
The drone area boasts a 500-meter runway, a heliport, and a testing range enclosed by netting. There is also an endurance testing facility and a wind tunnel. The infrastructure inspection and disaster response zone features a realistic urban environment, complete with traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and street signs, and is also equipped with bridges, tunnels, factories, and other large infrastructure. The underwater and aquatic zone includes a flooded urban field and an indoor pool, enabling terrestrial, maritime, and aerial testing.
Manufacturers prefer testing ranges that are close to development hubs, which allow for more effective testing by making it easier for teams to quickly address design faults and perform maintenance. To cater to such requirements, the research buildings and the rest of the development infrastructure area has been fitted with state-of-the-art machining tools and precision measurement equipment, as well as laboratories. Currently, a total of 17 businesses and organizations in various fields occupy the site. These range from large corporations like Denso to small-scale ventures and educational institutions like the University of Aizu.
Nearby is the Minamisōma Incubation Center (MIC), a facility that helps start-ups rent offices and factories, set up businesses, raise funds, and operate, and the Minamisōma City Reconstruction Industrial Park, which provides extensive assistance to robot manufacturers. There is also plenty of capacity within the city to support further expansion.
Making Robots Part of Everyday Life
One Robot Test Field occupant that is attracting attention is Man-Machine Synergy Effectors, a company that develops large humanoid robots of the sort that are portrayed in science fiction and anime. The firm is headed by robotics specialist Kanaoka Katsuya, a visiting lecturer at Ritsumeikan University’s Robotics Research Center. The tsunami and nuclear disaster inspired him to establish a startup with the aim of making robots part of everyday life.
Reflecting on the 2011 disaster, he says: “You had situations where people were doing demanding tasks while being exposed to the danger of radiation, the kind of tough work that should have been performed by robots. Before the disaster we all thought that Japan made the best robots in the world, but were astonished to learn that in an actual disaster, there was not a single robot that was of any use.”
Kanaoka was motivated by the idea that there is no point in coming up with cutting-edge robotic technologies and theories if they cannot be implemented in the real world. After pouring energy into raising funds and building his staff, he established Man-Machine Synergy Effectors in October 2015. The company’s offices and research hub, dubbed the “secret base,” are located in Kusatsu in Shiga Prefecture, which is also where Ritsumeikan University’s Biwako Kusatsu campus is.
The company, whose philosophy is to free the world from the need for hard physical labor, established its Fukushima branch office in Minamisōma in December 2019. Initially based out of one of the RTF laboratories, the company relocated to the MIC in 2021. Kanaoka says that for a start-up like Man-Machine, it was reassuring to have the support of the Fukushima Innovation Coast concept and the Minamisōma government, which aims to turn the city into a center of robotics.
New technologies tend to be slow to be understood and accepted, which can affect the business side of things too. Kanaoka insists that in Minamisōma, though, the city as a whole has thrown its weight behind the industry, saying that “the creation of Man-Machine coincided with a wonderful chain of events that saw a new robotics industry spring up as the area was being rebuilt, and this is why we have been able to share our message so widely.”
Humanoid Robots Assist Rebuilding
Man-Machine is more than just a robot manufacturer. The company’s business model involves acting as an intermediary between robot manufacturers and clients that want innovative products and providing concepts and independently developed technologies aimed at the real-world deployment of robotics.
As its corporate philosophy suggests, Man-Machine does not produce robots that are dedicated to a single, mundane task such as cleaning. Rather, it aims to create multifunctional, versatile robots that can replace humans to perform high-risk jobs like heavy lifting and labor in high places.
The JINKI type Zero, which was jointly developed with train operator JR West Japan and Nippon Signal, aims to automate the maintenance of electrical railway infrastructure mounted in high locations. In addition to rail, Man-Machine also envisages applying the technology toward maintenance of transport, power, and communications infrastructure, including replacing traffic lights and inspecting tunnels and bridges.
The Robot Test Field offers the necessary spacious environment for testing, including urban zones with, bridges, tunnels, and buildings. Kanaoka even jokes that the Robot Test Field was built for his company.
The robot and drone industries are projected to grow rapidly. The Japanese government, for instance, aims to commercialize flying cars in time for Expo 2025 in Osaka. The deployment of robots to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi reactors is also a matter of urgency. However, Kanaoka states bluntly that Man-Machine does not intend to provide solutions specifically for things like reactor decommissioning or disaster response. Rather, the company is focused on a business-to-business model that looks beyond Fukushima and Japan to the global market. Kanaoka adds that he wants people to remember that robots deployed at Fukushima Daiichi reactor were of the traditional type.
If humanoid robots take off internationally, more money will become available for development, helping advance technologies and functionality. This will lead to significant improvements in ease-of-use, and an increase in the number of people able to operate robots.
“There is no point manufacturing X number of robots specifically for decommissioning reactors because disasters take many forms and can happen anywhere,” Kanda insists. ”Such robots won’t be able to respond to conditions other than the one’s they’re designed for. This makes placing priority on robot models that can be deployed in different situations all the more important. If a company with expertise in emergency response and nuclear disasters says they want to use our technology, we will absolutely cooperate with them. This approach might seem roundabout at first glance, but I believe it is actually the shortest path to decommissioning the reactor and rebuilding the region.”
The Robot Test Field, the Minamisōma municipal government, and the Fukushima Innovation Coast framework aim to grow the robotics sector as a whole. The continuation of these initiatives may see the Hamadōri area become home to a new key industry that operates not just in Fukushima but the entirety of Japan.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A stretcher robot and aid-carrying UGV autonomously follow search and rescue personnel. © Yamada Shinji.)