#047 Dig! Measure! Connect! Disaster information studies according to a mining researcher

Associate Professor KAWAMURA Yohei, Faculty of Engineering, Information and Systems

Digging the ground is easier said than done. It is an extremely important technology which has a plethora of applications in such fields as construction, development of resources, disaster prevention, and space exploration. As part of this, an initiative is underway to develop an effective disaster prevention system in which the ground and environment is monitored and the information collected is shared with the people who need it, when they need it.

An excavation drill, 20 cm in length and 3-4 cm in diameter. If you look carefully you will see that the drill bit is divided into two sections which revolve in opposite directions. This is the contra-rotating double drill developed by Prof. Kawamura. It is an advanced device which makes excavation far easier than with traditional unidirectional drills. Considerable pressure must be exerted on a traditional drill in order to deepen the excavation, otherwise idle spinning will result and drilling will not progress. With two drills revolving in opposite directions, each drill cancels out the other's resistance and thus drilling progresses smoothly even if pressure is not applied. In addition, a "robot mole" has been conceived, a robot device which undulates like a snake and is attached to the drill, with an earth collection hole and sensors that detect the composition of the soil and buried objects, thus enabling monitoring of subterranean conditions as digging progresses. The field of robotics, epitomized by drones, has made great progress in automated exploration of the skies, seas and the surface of the earth, but the subterranean world has been almost entirely overlooked. Nevertheless, the applications of the robot mole are virtually unlimited: pre-construction ground surveys, investigations of landslide-causing underground water, environmental assessments which measure quantities of harmful substances in the earth, and even excavations on the surface of the moon which is covered in sand-like lunar soil. The contra-rotating double drill, developed by Prof. Kawamura, has opened up all these possibilities.

This on its own would be enough to arouse interest around the world, but excavation is only a small part of Prof. Kawamura's research. Originally, he had intended to become an oceanographer but was forced to give this up due to severe seasickness he suffered on study trips. He chose a resource exploration laboratory which specialized in sensor technology for disaster prevention as this would enable him to utilize his knowledge of remote sensing. Research into communication methods for malfunction diagnosis in heavy machinery used in mining piqued his interest in fields such as soil, machinery, measurement and communications. After teaching several years at the University of Tsukuba , Prof. Kawamura set out to break new ground, moving to Curtin University in Australia, a mecca of mining engineering, where he lived like a miner or a tradie. At the campus in the town of Kalgoorlie, home to the one of the world's largest open-cut mines, he was involved in research into blasting techniques, environmental monitoring inside mines, and disaster prevention.

In the spring of 2015 Prof. Kawamura returned to the University of Tsukuba and launched the Geo-Computing Laboratory which enables him to utilize all the knowledge and experience he has accumulated so far. Disaster information studies, as envisaged by Prof. Kawamura, refer to the creation of a system which rapidly collates all information about evacuation and rehabilitation as soon as a disaster takes place, and transmits it in a pinpointed fashion to those affected and local officials. In the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, mobile telephone infrastructure was put out of action, the internet was inundated with information but it was impossible to verify what was true and what was false, and the people affected, whose safety is most crucial, were not able to obtain the information they needed. It takes time to rebuild infrastructure and sift through information spread around in a disorderly fashion, time which people on the ground do not have. It is obvious that instead of waiting for this, it is far more beneficial to disaster relief workers and survivors to build a simple network in a disaster area, a network which will collate and share information about people, supplies, and the environment.

The contra-rotating double drill is being tested in the university at the moment

This system is made possible thanks to "ZigBee," a short distance wireless communication protocol. The amounts of data it can transmit and the broadcast range are small-scale, but the nodes are low in cost and the system is easy to set up. If it is prepared by the local authority beforehand, then all the authorities, the fire brigade, and police personnel have to do in an emergency is to install the nodes and the network will be formed automatically. If mobile phones and sensors are connected to the network, data relating to the situation in emergency shelters, calls for help, and changes in the ground and the environment can be collated in real time. In addition, this system can be implemented in many situations which require ongoing monitoring and instant detection of irregularities and dangers, such as movements of people and materials inside mines, landslides and falling rocks, or aging infrastructure.

Prof. Kawamura says he came back from Australia because he missed Tsukuba so much.

The ZigBee protocol, established in 2004 and mainly used for factory automation networks, has yet to be deployed in a disaster setting or for disaster prevention. Prof. Kawamura, in collaboration with researchers in other fields, is currently investigating the Tsukuba region to determine transmission quality in residential areas, roads, and forests, in order to draw up a map with the optimum positions for node installation, taking into account the locations of emergency shelters. Trials of the system are scheduled to commence soon. The driving force behind this research is the will to create an information management system which will truly benefit the community in times of disaster.

Article by Science Communicator at the Office of Public Relations

Celebrating the 151st 50th Anniversary of the University of Tsukuba
Celebrating the 151st 50th Anniversary of the University of Tsukuba