Following the March 11, 2011, tsunami that ravaged Japan’s coastline, the geospatial community has rallied around the country, providing disaster response tools on the ground and an array of geospatially based information resources via the Internet.
Japan continues to bear the hardships of this massive natural disaster, described by many experts as the worst crisis to hit the country since the horrific end of World War II. It seems unfair that more than a half century later this tiny country should have to endure another event with potentially significant nuclear radiation consequences. As of this writing, Japan had just formally banned entry to the 20-kilometer evacuation zone surrounding the severely damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Flying R2D2s Deployed
Few outside the military have seen the T-Hawk in action—until now. The 18-inch unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by Honeywell International has been deployed to fly in and around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility to provide full-motion video (FMV) streams and measure radiation. Honeywell has committed four T-Hawks and a team of pilots indefinitely to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator.
Affectionately dubbed “flying R2D2s” by Honeywell, the UAV’s squatty appearance belies its capabilities. The craft can reach speeds of 50 mph, start and stop quickly, and hover while taking videos and radiation readings. Weighing just 20 pounds, the T-Hawk carries enough fuel for a 45-minute mission and typically operates between 100 and 200 feet off the ground, although it can climb to an altitude of nearly two miles.
A Honeywell spokesman says the T-Hawks are performing well under the intense conditions, with no maintenance problems and no apparent affect from radiation. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the company hopes the Japanese missions will help introduce the technology as a tool for police, fire and civilian emergency organizations. For an overview of how UAVs are poised for civilian duty, visit the Earth Imaging Journal Web site (www.eijournal.com) and read “Drones” in the September/October 2010 issue.
A Bad Dam Idea
Shifting our attention to Southeast Asia, we find a tenuous situation developing amongLaos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam over a series of proposed hydroelectric dam projects that environ-mentalists say would further damage a fragile ecosystem and could threaten regional food security.
Laos, a poor land-locked nation, plans to build the Xayaburi dam along the Mekong River in the rich jungles north of its capital city, Vientane. Despite pleas from the other three countries for further studies of the project’s environmental impacts, Laos says the process is complete. According to the Wall Street Journal, the country believes it can take steps to prevent possible problems created by the dam.
Nearly 5,000 kilometers long, the Mekong River Basin includes parts of China, Myanmar and Vietnam, nearly one-third of Thailand, and most of Cambodia and Laos. With a total land area nearly the size of France and Germany combined, the Mekong’s headwaters originate high on the Tibetan Plateau, flowing through six distinct geographical regions.
The basin’s most abundant resources are water and biodiversity—only the Amazon River Basin offers greater plant and animal diversity. According to a study released by the Mekong River Commission late last year, the series of proposed dams would “fundamentally undermine the abundance, productivity and diversity of the Mekong’s fish resources,” jeopardizing the region’s farming and food security.
The Mekong River Commission uses the informative power of Earth observation to make assessments. The organization has used a host of satellite imagery in its studies, including data from NASA’s ASTER and MODIS sensors, along with Landsat, Spot (Astrium), IKONOS (GeoEye) and Radarsat (MDA) satellites. The commission bases its recommendations in part on real data from these platforms, along with sound science—recommendations the Laos government should strongly consider before making irreversible mistakes affecting millions of people.
— Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal