Japan's high-tech innovations take on natural disasters

Guest post by my inimitable colleague Noko Kataoka.

Noko Kataoka
When I’m talking to my family in Japan, the conversation often turns to the weather. Not because we have nothing else to talk about, but because the weather is such a serious subject in their region. They experience heavy rainstorms in early summer (followed by scorching heat that lasts for over two months), ferocious typhoons in the fall, and blizzards in the winter that can drop up to 50 cm of snow overnight. Every time I hear a severe weather report I need to call my family and make sure they’re okay.

And, of course, Japan is known for its earthquakes. The country is still working to recover from the “311” (March 11, 2011) disaster, one of the worst earthquakes and tsunamis in history, which killed more than 18,000 people. The country has had to put a lot of thought into how more lives could be saved when Mother Nature chooses to strike again.

Logo of the
Saigai Taisaku Expo
The good news is, Japanese people are very good at advancing technology to address their unique environment. Government agencies and businesses work together on innovative ways to respond to environmental challenges. The country even has tradeshows dedicated to technologies for coping with natural disasters. For instance, the Saigai Taisaku Expo (Disaster Response Expo) showcased many ingenious solutions this year — from highly sophisticated portable toilets for evacuation camps to smartphone apps for earthquake warnings. Here are some solutions that I found interesting:

  • An unmanned airplane for establishing radio communications in isolated communities that have suffered infrastructure damage.
  • A helmet loaded with a head-lamp, radio, earthquake sensor, and wireless communications unit. The helmet not only protects you from physical shocks but also sends emergency messages for safety confirmation, evacuation guidance, and more.
  • An earthquake estimator that uses earthquake forecast information issued by the Japan meteorological agency to estimate the magnitude of an imminent quake and how long before the shock hits. It can be integrated with public broadcasting systems or digital signage to guide people to safety.
  • A smartphone navigation app especially designed for natural disaster situations. Using information from GPS and camera, the app displays directions for designated evacuation areas.
  • An unmanned 3D radar system for estimating damage to buildings. Okay, your building is still standing after a big earthquake — but how do you know if it’s safe to go in?
  • A public information system that consolidates and manages big data collected by the crisis management information center. In the state of emergency, people can access to emergency-response information they need from their mobile devices.
It is particularly interesting to see how new innovations are made possible by technologies such as smartphones and cloud connectivity. We have little immediate influence on how Mother Nature behaves, but people can engineer solutions to help survive natural disasters. And with global climate change causing unexpected weather across the planet, Japan’s innovations in connected systems for environmental challenges may prove useful in other parts of the world, too.

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