Disaster-Prevention Technology in Japan

Rescue robot Quince.
(Photo courtesy of Tohoku University Tadokoro Laboratory)

   Natural disasters are a growing risk worldwide, from earthquakes to tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, torrential rains, flooding, landslides, tornadoes, heavy snowfall, and more. Japan is no stranger to disasters, having witnessed its share of torrential rain, earthquakes, and volcanic activity. As a result, the country is engaged in a number of disaster-related initiatives.

Systems and Manuals for Quick and Safe Evacuation Guidance

   Since 2007, smartphones have been installed with an earthquake early warning system that sounds an alarm immediately before an earthquake strikes. The first of its type in the world, this system generates an alert based on initial small tremors that occur seconds or tens of seconds before a large quake, urging people to prepare for evacuation. The system uses seismometers and seismic intensity meters that measure the tremors from the Japan Meteorological Agency (roughly 690 locations nationwide) and a seismographic observation network from the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention (roughly 1000 locations nationwide). Smartphones can also access a Disaster Message Board Service and various emergency response apps from different network providers, which allow users to notify friends and family of their safety. There's also an information-providing app aimed at foreign visitors from overseas, so they can receive emergency updates free of charge.

Earthquake early warnings are sent to smartphones via network providers, as well as being broadcast on TV and radio.

The "Safety tips" app provides information to non-Japanese residents. It notifies users of impending earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and other emergencies, as well as advising on heatstroke, civil protection, evacuation, and more. The app supports 15 languages, including English. From left to right: Japanese version, English version, Chinese versions (simplified/traditional), Korean version (photo courtesy of RC Solution Co.)

   Local governments are also engaging in disaster-prevention measures. In Tokyo, a disaster guide book called "Tokyo Bosai (disaster prevention)" was distributed to every household. It can also be viewed free of charge on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government official website, including the English, Chinese (simplified/traditional), and Korean versions. When the Gyeongju earthquake struck South Korea in 2016, the Korean version of this guidebook became a hot topic online.

The English version of the "Tokyo Bosai" guidebook issued by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. It covers information on a wide range of disasters including earthquakes, torrential rains, landslides, volcanic eruptions, terrorism, infectious diseases, and more. (Photo courtesy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

Using Drones and Robots in Rescue Operations

   Drones are already put to use in all kinds of ways, and are now being developed especially for disasters. The "3rd eye Drone System" detects people through thermal infrared imaging and projects them as three-dimensional silhouettes, helping ascertain the location and condition of those in need of rescue. This information is shared with rescue parties, helping them reach people without delay. The system has already been trialed, and is expected to be adopted by the fire and police departments in future. Meanwhile, robots that can carry out disaster relief tasks in place of humans are also being developed. When disaster strikes, rescue robot Quince is able to enter and investigate hazardous sites such as underground facilities and building interiors so that people don't have to. Quince has already been successfully deployed on the site of earthquakes and other disasters.

Three-dimensional silhouette projections on the 3rd eye Drone System. The system uses AI to automatically analyze and identify images of survivors stranded in places that can't be seen from the ground, such as the insides of buildings or on rooftops, and sends this information to rescue parties in real-time. (Photo courtesy of Rock Garage)

Quince was designed to enter and investigate the sites of chemical, radioactive, and explosive disasters in place of fire-fighting crews. (Photo courtesy of Tohoku University Tadokoro Laboratory)

Using New Technology to Predict Sudden Localized Rainstorms and Damage from Tsunamis

   Sudden localized rainstorms (known as "guerrilla rainstorms" in Japan) can be hard to predict, but there's already a free app that can do just that. It uses a radar capable of measuring rainclouds in three dimensions along with existing radar technology to determine signs of guerrilla storms. Meanwhile, a system spearheaded by Tohoku University to determine the height, range, number of people within range, and scale of building damage from incoming tsunamis following large-scale earthquakes, and to distribute this information within 30 minutes, has also been developed.

The guerrilla rainstorm prediction app 3D Amagumo Weather — screenshot from July 30, 2021. (Image courtesy of MTI Ltd.) The image on the right is Japanese supercomputer Fugaku, announced as the fastest supercomputer in the world at the International Supercomputing Conference in June 2020 (photo courtesy of RIKEN). It has been used to forecast the probability of guerrilla rainstorms occurring within the next 30 minutes by running 1000 simulations based on up-to-date measurement data received every 30 seconds.

The advancement of supercomputers has made it possible to forecast fast-changing weather like "guerrilla rainstorms."
On the right is a rainfall distribution map of central Tokyo, measured by a weather radar. Photo courtesy of RIKEN

   Japan has utilized its experience with natural disasters to develop an array of disaster-prevention technologies, some of which have been exported across Asia and elsewhere, such as flood-control technology used in Thailand, seismic-control and base-isolation technology used in Turkey, and tsunami-protection technology used in Chile. The state-of-the-art technology featured in this article may also be exported and used at disaster sites around the world in future.