Local governments near the destroyed Fukushima nuclear reactors still operate in exile three years after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan. As workers dig up radioactive soil, high weeds grow over cars and demolished buildings. But getting high-resolution images of the cleanup progress is a challenge. Satellite imagery alone doesn’t tell the whole story. And actually going in person for more than a few hours is not advisable.
That’s why, last year, a humanitarian drone group teamed up with University of Tokyo researchers to see how unmanned aerial vehicles might be able to capture the landscape. From an abandoned school baseball field and train station parking lot, the team launched a drone to help map three towns roughly equidistant from the reactors.
"It kind of felt like it was a post-apocalyptic scene," said Adam Klaptocz, co-founder of Drone Adventures. "We had done some work in Haiti before that. And that was a different feeling because you were in a place that was destroyed, but there were people around. It was being rebuilt."
In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, University of Tokyo professor and vice president of OpenStreetMap Japan Taichi Furuhashi started using satellite imagery and Twitter incident reporting to map the disaster relief progress. In recent years, researchers mapping local radiation levels have added another layer of data to the project.
But all that still doesn’t communicate a full picture of what’s actually happening on the ground. The high-resolution images captured by the drone, however, show fields destroyed by wild boars and hundreds of bright blue bags of radioactive soil organized in neat rectangular patches. Japan’s rambunctious wild boar population has drawn much public attention in recent years for causing damage to human property, but Furuhashi and Klaptocz were still surprised to see how much they had affected the nuclear landscape.
"The greenhouse of the school, for example—there’s rubble everywhere from wild pigs that are wrestling around, making a mess," Klaptocz said. "There are cars all over the place with weeds growing through their windows."
But while the drone technology is helpful, it still leaves much to be desired, Furuhashi says. The professor hopes to combine panoramic imaging and radiation mapping with the drone technology to cover new areas. He’s now working with Mozilla on a mobile bus that can launch more drone mapping projects in Fukushima.
"We have learned that mapping technology has power for resilience," he said.