July 27, 2021

Prototype: Inventions Offer Tools to Endure Future Disasters

The experience also provided a creative incentive for Mr. Tanaka, an inventor who is president of Cosmo Power, a Japanese engineering company: It “spurred me to work hard to complete Noah,” he says.

“Noah” is Mr. Tanaka’s version of a modern-day ark, and his answer to the possibility of another deadly tsunami. A bright yellow globe four feet in diameter — picture a giant tennis ball — Noah is made of fiber-reinforced plastic that can withstand blows from a sledgehammer. Up to four people can fit inside the pod, which automatically rights itself in water and can survive a drop of 33 feet.

Mr. Tanaka designed his pod as a “temporary refuge,” he said, so that in a tsunami, people can get inside and be carried along by the water for one or two hours, until help arrives. Small air ducts make it possible to breathe, and there is a small window to see outside. 

The product is already on the market — it retails for about $3,800. Mr. Tanaka says he has orders from Japanese customers for more than 1,000 pods, some of which have already been delivered.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. But so, apparently, is anticipation of possible necessity. The tragedy that people witnessed last year in Japan, combined with inadequacies in the country’s disaster preparedness system, spurred some of Japan’s greatest minds to come up with innovations to deal with future natural catastrophes.

Some of these inventions weren’t created from scratch. They were tailored from already-made products, so the process was much quicker and cheaper. The inspiration for Noah came from a product Mr. Tanaka developed three years ago to protect people if their house collapsed in an earthquake. But that unit was hemispherical and wasn’t intended to be submerged in water.

“So I redid it as a complete sphere, strengthened the water tightness and made Noah able to withstand a tsunami,” Mr. Tanaka says. He hopes that Noah will become a standard safety item in Japanese households.

“It is simple for anyone to have a Noah,” he says, “and I want as many people as possible to have one.”

Yoshiyuki Sankai, an engineering professor at University of Tsukuba near Tokyo, was similarly inspired to update one of his inventions after the tsunami. In his case, he transformed his Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL — a lower-body, robotic exoskeleton — so it could assist people working at radiation sites.

The original HAL, introduced in 2008, helps patients who can’t walk by monitoring the signals sent from their brains to their muscles. Sensors in HAL pick up these signals and then, essentially, walk for the person. The robot suit has been commercialized and is leased by hospitals and wellness centers in Japan.

Dr. Sankai was already working on other uses for HAL when he received a call last summer from a company involved in the cleanup of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the site of the nuclear disaster resulting from the tsunami. Could HAL assist workers who had to wear incredibly heavy, anti-radiation tungsten vests at the site?

Less than three months later, Dr. Sankai had his answer: yes. “The principle behind the two suits is the same,” he said of the versions of HAL, describing the philosophical mission as “supporting and expanding the human ability.”

But in the new model, an upper-body frame supports the tungsten plates, which can weigh up to 132 pounds. Without that support, it would be hard for individuals to work in the suit for long stretches of time. “So now the worker doesn’t feel any weight,” he said.

The new HAL has received a patent but is still in the prototype stage and is being tested. Dr. Sankai says it will take an additional six or seven months of development before it’s ready for commercial use.

THE tsunami is not the only recent disaster to inspire technological tinkering. After witnessing the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on Thailand in late 2004, Hidei Kimura was disturbed by the communications breakdown in the area.

“Due to heavy traffic, mobile phones were no use,” he says. “There was no way to access emergency information.” (This observation was reconfirmed last year during the Japanese tsunami.)

As chief executive of Burton Inc., a Japanese company that specializes in 3-D displays, Mr. Kimura had an idea: “If textual information could be drawn in midair” — without a need for a screen — “far more people could see it and have access to valuable information,” he says.

Mr. Kimura says that the concept was based on common sense, but that “no such device existed” at the time. So it became his mission to create a large-scale, 3-D display that could be used to broadcast messages in the air during a disaster.

The result is Aerial 3D, which uses laser beams to create text out of tiny, luminous dots. The technology is now available to rent through Burton, though it is still being improved. At this point, the projected images can be no more than 16 feet high and 16 feet wide, but by year-end those dimensions should double.

As for the advantage of 3-D, “a lot of people can actually see it,” Mr. Kimura says. “If it’s only 2-D, you can only see it from one direction.”

Practical use aside, he says, people are intrigued by his creation on a less serious level: “They say it’s just like ‘Star Wars.’ ”

E-mail: proto@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/inventions-offer-tools-to-endure-future-disasters.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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